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An Ongoing Tribute to my own lameness.....

General random thoughts about gaming, both within and outside of the MMO genre.

Author: Jimmy_Scythe

Do We Really Want or Need A Persistent World?

Posted by Jimmy_Scythe Sunday April 27 2008 at 7:04PM
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So last week I talked about static parties and got a pretty positive response. Those who hadn't done static parties before, and there were certainly a lot of you, wanted to try them. Those that had done static parties advocated for them. That's all cool, but it leads to a really interesting question: Why do we even need the massive part of the MMORPG thing?

I've tread this ground before and keep coming back to it. If the only reason you play is to hang out with friends, PvP, or meet new people, then is the persistent world really necessary? Having played several non-massive online RPGs (Diablo, Phantasy Star Online, Neverwinter Nights, Monster Hunter, etc.), I honestly think that the persistent world is the second biggest reason, next to guilds, that MMORPGs suck.

Yeah, I'm sure there are few of you sharpening the teeth on your chainsaws and cleaning your deer rifles in preparation to hunt me down for muttering that, but put the arsenal aside for a minute and just think about it.  You can meet people in a town hub or lobby. NWN was able to host 90 players on one server and some FPS games are capable of hosting 150 players at once! Portal together a bunch of instanced PvP capture points and you have RvR without the auto-attack snorefest that is current MMORPG combat. Even if an instance can only hold 64 players, what's the largest raid you've ever been in? 25? 40? Hell, you can even have auction houses with fully instanced games. There was really no reason why something like Diablo couldn't have let players sell the items that they acquired to one another through and auction house system. Well... Aside from the fact that the auction house hadn't even been invented at the time that Diablo 2 was released that is.

So we've already established that nothing is really lost in a fully instanced MORPG, but what is actually lost because of a persistent world? Well, mostly you lose individual bandwidth. MMORPG developers try to compensate for this by using expensive server clusters and some truly obtuse netcode. But even with the most cutting edge equipment and programming, you're still stuck with a tic based game. This means that much of the game is on autopilot in order to limit the amount of traffic both to and from the servers. Furthermore, persistent worlds dilute the actual content of the game with unnecessary downtime and travel time. How much time in an MMORPG do you just spend sitting on your ass waiting to heal? How much time do you spend just getting from one place to the next? Again, this is to help limit the amount of traffic to and from the servers. You also lose a considerable amount of what makes an RPG compelling in the first place. Primarily, you lose the story and the logistical planning. Since all you have to do is spam potions, heals, or sit around until your health regenerates, you don't have to plan ahead as to what you take with or how to approach this or that group of mobs. Since the game is just one large series of quest vendors, the only story you'll get is from the flavor text of the quests. That's a poor substitution for the branching story lines and dialogs of Morrowind or KOTOR.

With the heavy weights of the persistent world thrown off, online RPGs have the freedom to engage in storyline and bring back several elements that seem to have been lost from MMORPGs. Cut scenes, branching dialog, puzzles, damage that doesn't go away until you actually heal yourself, requiring character to eat and drink to stay alive, true real-time OR turn based combat, you get the picture.

Anyway, I'm sure that a few of you feel otherwise so please, explain to me exactly what it is that persistent worlds bring to the table. Please tell me the advantages of persistent worlds that make up for all that they remove from the game. In short, tell me why you think I'm wrong. I'm sure that there are many of you that do. Of course, many of you are holding on for that living, breathing, alternate reality to escape into forever. It will never happen.

Game Responsibly

Posted by Jimmy_Scythe Friday April 18 2008 at 10:36PM
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So I've been thinking a lot about time and MMORPGs. If I could choose one thing to completely tear on MMORPGs about, it would be the time commitment that these games demand from the very outset. If I could choose one reason why more people aren't playing MMORPGs, it would the amount of time that players are expected to put in per session, week, month, year, etc. But to be fair, why in the hell are we letting a game monopolize our schedule?

We don't let single player games consume our lives when they require 80 to 100 hours to complete. We're just fine with catching TV shows on a weekly basis. We don't even have a problem with waiting a year for a movie sequel. So why do we feel like we have to rush to the level cap and acquire all the epics in X amount of months?

Just why the hell are people puting 20, 30 or 40+ hours a week into MMORPGs when those hours aren't actually required by the mechanics of the game? If you leave a quest half done, won't it still be there when you log back in? Won't all those levels and shiny things be rendered worthless in the next expansion when the level cap gets raised and the next tier of epics comes out?

The cause of all this time wasteage is twofold: raiding and guilds. The lesser of these two evils is raiding. The longest raid I've ever heard of lasted 10 hours and that's about even with the amount of time that most  people put into SuperBowl Sunday. If six to 10 hour raids only happened once a month, or even once every week, I don't think anyone would mind. It's when we throw in raiding guilds that the games devouring your life whole and begin feeling more like a sweat shop than a hobby.

For the record, I am anti-guild. You can tell me that your guild is different and how not all guilds are Machiavellian communities for the betterment of "geek football," but it doesn't hold a very much weight. The bottom line is that the player is expected to martyr themselves for the good of the guild by putting in a set amount of time and remaining on the guild's beck and call. If your guild is different then you need to hang on to it for dear life because it's one in a fucking million.

For the most part, guilds are about convenient grouping and loot. In theory, you're supposed to be able to call on your guild to provide party members in the event that a quest that you're working on requires more manpower. You are expected to offer the same help to other guild members in return. The net result is that everyone advances faster and gets more loot. Additionally, if the guild is big enough, you have access to high-end content that requires large numbers of players which, in turn, affords you the opportunity to get more valuable loot. In short, guilds are motivated and powered exclusively by greed.

The emphasis on loot means that guilds attach their status to their stuff and establish social hierarchy around level and gear.  This inevitably contaminates the surrounding community, creating a compitition to put  "those elitist pricks" in their place. Now, we have a situation where new players are forced to seek out a guild in order to get the levels and loot that signifies adequacy within a given server's community. This is generally at odds with most players motivations to enjoy the gameplay or to simply have people to hang out with in game.

Maybe it's time that we approached these games differently....

About a week ago I posted a thread about static parties and asked how many people actually engaged in them. I got a pretty  mixed reply. Most people had never been in one, but had heard of the concept. Others had been trying to get a static party together over the internet for years and failed. And finally there were one or two people that were in static parties and had alts set aside specifically for the purpose. So you're probably asking "WTF are static parties?!" I'm glad you asked.

A static party is simply a group of players that get together at a specific time and group using characters mades specifically for that group and nothing else. For instance, a group may meet on Monday, Wednesday and Friday for two or three hours per session. This group will also use characters that were made for this group. So everyone is free to play the rest of the week if they want, just with alts and not with static party characters.

Static parties are something of a regression to the table top RPGs of old. The main differences being that you aren't leaving the house and you probably aren't roleplaying either. This doesn't make it any less nerdy, but it does make the game way more manageable time-wise.

Think about the advantages for a minute. No more waiting for hours LFG. Minimal drama due to the smaller number of players and the fact that you aren't playing every single day together. Having limited the game to a set number of hours a week, you now have time for other activities or even <gasp> other games. The game that you're playing will last longer and be considerably less stressful since you aren't racing toward some vaguely defined end-game. You get all the advantages of grouping without having to rely on a guild that cares more about how you serve their needs than how they can help you out. After a few sessions, your party will be a well oiled machine calibrated to your group's specific play style.

That last one could arguably be done within a guild that practiced every day, but static parties will reach the same results with much less pain and irritation. And ultimately, this emphasis on the journey rather than the destination is what can make static parties more enjoyable than the way that MMORPGs are normally played. Rather than playing for the acceptance of a given game's community, you're playing for completely for yourself and the three to seven people you bring with you.

Before I get the flood of "why not play an regular multiplayer RPG" replies, let me explain that your static party is still free to interact with the rest of the community. If you want to team up with another group, help someone in trouble or just add a random PUG, you're completely free to do so. You're still playing an MMORPG after all. The only thing that's changed is the amount of time you spend playing and the fact that you're playing to enjoy the game and not stroke someone else's epeen.

Also consider how much more effeciently your time will be spent in the few hours that you play. A group that meets for four hours on Wednesday and Friday will put in 32 hours a month. In one year, they'll have put in 384 hours. In those hours, they will have spent zero time looking for group. They will have spent less time getting wiped because they will be intimately familiar with eachothers play style, roles and tactics. They will have 30% more loot and experience, on average, than other players with equal game time because the static party is always grouped. Most importantly though, a static party will still have plenty of game content left to experience after a year whereas everyone else will be bitching about how bored they are because they've already capped and done everything. Do I even have to mention the fact that you probably won't be able to play any single player RPG, aside from Morrowind, for anywhere near that amount of time without running out of content.

Raiding for epics? With the money you save up after a year why bother raiding for them? You'll be able to get them straight out of the auction house or craft them from materials that you can get in other ways. Battlegrounds? Eight players working as a single unit seems pretty effective to me. You really don't miss out on anything by being in a static party. Well, maybe hearing some douche screaming about how you just got 50 DKP Minus....

Let me sum it up with an old parable.

Baby Bull: Hey Pappa, lets run down to that field, fuck a couple of the cows and run on back here!

Papa Bull: No son. Let's walk down thar and fuck 'em all.

A Question of Audience

Posted by Jimmy_Scythe Friday April 11 2008 at 2:26PM
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I've been pressed for time this week, so I did this weeks blog in audio.

You can listen to it here.

My Swift Spiral into Madness

Posted by Jimmy_Scythe Thursday April 3 2008 at 12:38PM
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So I recently jumped back into the age old debate of controllers vs. the keyboard and the mouse. This argument is an old favorite of mine because I honestly believe that the player matters more than what controls they use. After all, U.S. pilots in WWII created tactics for defeating the much more nimble Mitsubishi Zeke. Not being one to trust the debate to words alone, I set out to prove that the difference between controllers and keyboard was minimal.

The first thing I did was installed Pinnacle Game Profiler on my computer and boot up the Unreal Tournament 3 Beta demo. I had originally downloaded the UT3 demo to see how hard it would hang my computer but, amazingly enough, it ran. I say amazingly because my system specs are:

2Ghz AMD 64 3200+ (single core)

2 Gigs of DDR RAM

512 Meg GeForce 7300 SE (PCI Express)

So yeah... It was astounding that UT3 ran on it at all...

I found that I could run the game with the textures and post processing cranked and still get about 15 to 20 frames per second. This turned out to taint my results a little bit, as you'll see later.

Back to the story, I was unable to find anyone that was willing to duel me and allow me to post the results on YouTube. So I had to use my own performance with the in-game bots as a guide. This isn't that big of a deal since the Unreal Tournament series, as anyone who's been in the FPS scene for any amount of time will tell you, has the best bot AI in the industry. Even at their highest difficulty setting, the bots don't cheat. Let me restate that: The bots don't cheat. And the bots don't have to cheat, they're that damn good!

For the sake of the test, auto aim and mouse smoothing remained off. The initial results seemed to confirm the bias that a keyboard and mouse was superior, with my kill ratio dropping from 5 to 1 against average bots with a keyboard and mouse to 2 to 1 with a controller. At this point I was wondering if the results were just a product of my lack of experience with the controller. So I spent several hours over the next two days practicing and, sure enough, I was able to pull my kill ratio with my controller even with that using my mouse and keyboard.

The catch was that the controller still felt too jerky in it's movements. Often times I would find myself tensing my entire arm and hearing the creak of the controller under my vice-like grip because of the unconscious feeling that I lacked control. The mouse and keyboard controls felt smoother, but still more stuttery that what I was used to in an FPS. A light went on above my head and I decided to take a new track with this. I installed the earlier Unreal Tournament 2003 on my computer for the next batch of tests.

Unfortunately, the installation wouldn't accept the CD-Key that I bought it with and I didn't feel like downloading a Key generator off of the web for software that I had actually paid for. Thus I had to download the demo of UT2003 and use that for the test. The only reason I bring this up is because this is part of the reason I've been slowly migrating to consoles over the last five years or so. Console games don't treat me like a fucking thief when I decide to play them again five years down the road.

At any rate, after I installed the UT2003 demo and downloaded the controller profiler for it, something magical happened. The experience of playing UT2003 with a controller was no different than playing it with a mouse! I was completely shocked. I wasn't just winning by grabbing armor and splash damage weapons either. I was making headshots with the lightning gun! HEADSHOTS!!!! And that's without auto aim of any kind!!! Not only that, but I was able to do this against bots on the skilled difficulty level!!

At this point I know that many of you are going to say that I suck because I was only playing against skilled bots and not Adept, Masterful, or Godlike. Truth be told, I have trouble against Adept bots even with a keyboard and mouse. This has never stopped me from finishing in the top three during 16+ player deathmatches on public servers though. I guess most people that play either suck really badly, or just don't practice with the bots before going online.

This is hardly conclusive evidence, but it does hold more weight than someone who has only played one console FPS game on the Nintendo 64 when they were in grade school. Maybe this would be a good time to explain a few things about controllers and console FPS games in general.

How Auto Aim Works:

There's actually no single answer to this. Every game does it differently. In the early N64 games, there was the crosshair magnet method that would drag the crosshairs over the nearest enemy on the screen. This method was used blatantly in titles like Goldeneye and Perfect Dark. Later, developers started using a sticky crosshair that would automatically lock on to any enemies it passed over until said enemy died or the player nudged the right stick away from the target. You can plainly see a sticky crosshair at work in the XBox version of Doom 3. Finally, there's the crosshair aim skew. The skew is a very subtle form of auto aim that you aren't really going to be aware of unless you're looking for it. In this technique, aim is skewed to hit anything that falls within the bounding box of the crosshairs. Let's break this down a little more...

With regular aim, you generally have a point that's very close to one or two pixels on the screen to determine the vector of a projectile to the opponent's bounding sphere, cylinder, box, or whatever. With aim skewing, the crosshairs become a bounding plane and any point within that plain can be used to make a vector to a target. In layman's terms, if it falls within the crosshairs you can hit it. This happens whether you're firing a shock rifle or an M4A1. You don't see the gun adjust to the new vector, the bullet just hits.

Skewing works in more modern settings because we expect the recoil on something like an Uzi to have a wide firing cone. It doesn't work so well with the example of the shock rifle since the energy beam moves in a laser beam straight line.

But if console controls are not worse than a keyboard and mouse, why did auto aim get implemented at all? That's because it was only recently that controllers got good enough to use without auto aim.

A Brief History of The Joystick:

Okay, so I'm not going to go all the way back, just to the Atari 2600. Most people don't know this, but the 2600 joystick was really just a five button controller. When you moved the stick, there was a plastic piece that would push these bubbles (buttons) on the sticks board that corresponded with the direction that you pushed the stick. Nintendo built on this by adding three more buttons and ditching the illusion of a stick when they brought out the NES. Interestingly enough, home computers like the Commodore 64 and Apple II used joysticks that were set up the same way.

Somewhere between 1986 and 1990 however, PC joysticks began using the voltage in two pointometers to determine the X and Y values of a joysticks position. This was a boon to flight sim fans who required a greater level of precision in order make the games they play feel more like actually flying. Consoles of this generation were still stuck on digital and even arcade machines used digital sticks.

This shifted with the release of the N64 and arguably the ugliest controller ever made. It's kind of interesting that while consoles generally launch with the most sophisticated graphics hardware available, they're generally cheap when it comes to everything else. The best example is the original Playstation that, after a year, wouldn't read discs unless you turned it upside down. A lesser known example is the cheap analog controls of the N64, which was of a much lower resolution than its PC analog counterparts. The smoothness of analog was apparent however, and Sony was quick to release the Dual Shock controller that was just a smidge more sensitive than the N64s stick.

And that's pretty much where we stayed until the XBox 360 came along. As far as I know, Microsoft made the original XBox controller to the specs of Sony's Dual Shock controller. Also as far as I know, Sony hasn't changed the specs of the Dual Shock stick one wit since it originally hit the market. Microsoft on the other hand, improved the sensitivity of the controller and drastically reduced the dead zone of the sticks on the 360 controller.

To put a finer point on it, controllers have evolved to the point that they no longer handicap a player that's using a controller. Nowadays, it's just a matter of what you prefer.

Of course, there's a much easier way to settle this. If you own a PS3 you can play UT3 with a Keyboard and a mouse. I'm not sure if you can play it split-screen but you can always find another PS3 owner at the yacht club and have a quick controller vs. keyboard and mouse duel while comparing the size of your trust funds just before jetting off to Milan to have sex with high society hookers that look like super models.

Just be sure to let those of us who work for a living know the results, eh?

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