Emulation: everything old is new again

Following in the footsteps of MAME, there’s a pleasing resurgence in fan-crafted MMO emulation projects.

From Star Wars Galaxies to vanilla Warcraft to Warhammer Online, it’s great to see these worlds being preserved. Even better to see people like John Smedley giving them the thumbs up.

Even if they can never be the same as they were – the lightning-in-a-bottle communities are impossible to recreate – it’s important that the history and joy those worlds represented aren’t lost.

I briefly tried a Vanilla Warcraft server, and it was amazing to remember just how far things have changed. Hunting with ammo, pet happiness, minimum range, weapon skills – and the possibility of dying in starter areas1. And despite the small numbers, there’s every chance the emulated games will generate unique communities of their own.

  1. What I really wanted to try was Plainsrunning, though I’m not sure it ever made it into a production build. 

The Watcher

Thinking more about how people could learn the game without YouTube or Tankspot, it seems that an Observer mode would be an excellent addition. Some mechanism which allowed you to join a fight in progress as a watcher only, hovering above god-style, kind of like you can hover around when dead and see what’s going on.

I’d love to be able to follow a Warrior tank who was running my chosen bête noire, to learn how they handle the adds and time their cooldowns. Or to hover over a new wing of Naxx once our guild ventures in for the second time.

This would allow you to watch and learn fights that are new, or that you’re struggling with. It removes the element of surprise when encountering a new instance or boss, but then very few approach a new fight without first watching a strategy video or reading a debrief. In fact Observer mode would be much more involving than those kind of meta approaches.

You’d probably need some kind of way to allow or disallow observers, so as not to be encumbered with additional stresses or having strangers judge your skills. But given people Livestream their attempts already, I’m sure it would be a pretty popular feature.

eSports depend on the ability for an audience to join a game as observers and hence participate in the event like they were at a real sports game. The venerable Quake engine allowed god mode overview for tournament play, Starcraft II will feature some kind of observer mode, as well as replays, so why not offer it in WoW too?


The Interwebs are bathed in the fiery afterglow of the Cataclysm class changes, with the main response being: “NIMBY“.

It’s a little disconcerting reading bloggers whose opinions are usually well thought out and rational going a little crazy in response. I guess most active bloggers are pretty serious players, so any changes tend to be leaped upon with vigour, and horror if there’s even the slightest hint of dramatic change.

  • Responding to the new Priest ability Leap of Faith, the normally very sane Tobold offers his services to Blizzard as a Chief Social Engineer because “I really don’t understand why nobody at Blizzard considered the consequences”. Really Tobold? No-one at Blizzard has considered the consequences?? Please.
  • Similarly the always angry Rilgon gets even angrier after reading the Hunter preview: “Focus: F*ck it. This sh*t is f*cking worthless”. And that’s mild compared to his twitter stream. Overreaction, much? All this without having even tried it, or giving Blizz any credit for perhaps being able to make it work. It works for Rogues, why can’t it work for Hunters?
  • The Escape Hatch disses the Warrior: “Based on this preview, I will be shocked if there is not a mass exodus from the warrior class come Cataclysm”. Why? Because there aren’t enough “cool” changes. Are people really going to abandon a class they love because Heroic Leap isn’t exciting enough?
  • Even Tamarind goes nuts: “Is this April Fools Day leftovers? It’s now not enough that I’m expected to heal the moronface standing in fire I’m expected to yank him out of as well?!!”. At least Tam has the good grace to realise it’s all a bit ott: “I’m sure, in practice, it’ll all be fine and I’ll be a Stupidity Grip convert, eating my words and looking small and silly”.

From all the class announcements, about the only change that I can see would cause real angst is the change to Druid Tree form. This one is a fundamental change to how you enjoy a class, not to a background mechanic. Hunters will still be able to shoot and have pets despite the change from Mana to Focus. A Tree Druid who’s not a Tree? That’s more problematic – support Tree Bark Jacket’s campaign!

For the rest, surely we can have just a smidgen of faith that Blizzard, um, know a little bit about what they are doing?  That they aren’t trying to break their game and drive everyone away to SW:ToR. That we’re grown up enough to adapt to the New Thing and enjoy it just as much as the Old.

Garwulf, in a thankfully balanced review of the Hunter changes, summed it up best for me: “FFS, quit yer bitchin’!”

Boss Fight Pause

Wednesday night saw our group play Pathfinder with table-top miniatures for the first time. It was awesome. We didn’t have anything like the crazy 3D extravaganzas Penny-Arcade create,  just a flat sheet of grid paper, white board markers, and figurines. Despite the simple setup, it was still awesome. There’s nothing like seeing the battlefield laid out to bring an event to life, and demonstrate the consequences of things like line of sight and proximity.

My cleric couldn’t bring any healing to the party (despite two members desperately needing some hit point love) because we started the fight spreadeagled all over the playing field. So I had to resort to bringing the big hammer down, which is more my style anyway 🙂

Our Sorcerer’s pseudo-dragon, who flew high above, could give him strategic advice, and his positioning on the steps meant he could better see where our enemies were coming from, but none of that could be conveyed to the rest of us due to the tyranny of distance.

Despite all these nub mistakes we got through it – helped by a friendly GM, some lucky dice rolls, and the fact that it wasn’t real time. That’s the difference between pen & paper and an MMO: we would have definitely wiped HoR style on the second wave of ravenous goblins, but the turn based nature of the fighting meant there was time to pause and consider our approach. We could focus fire, move closer together so I could heal the group, and generally adapt our strategy.

Which begs the question, could something similar be implemented in an MMO? Could you have a turn based mechanic in an MMO? What if you could pause a boss fight to discuss tactical approaches to the next phase, or to dissect what just happened? That would alleviate some of the need to research every fight before attempting it, and open up all sorts of learning opportunities. A learner mode.

It would also break the ‘flow’ of a fight, but it could be an optional feature that you flip on and off depending on whether you are on your first attempt or a veteran. Start new boss attempts by pausing and working out what is going on, then once you’ve got the fight down pat, start running it through end to end. During the pause attempts, no loot would drop to stop farming.

Could this work? Would it mean not having to Wowhead the fight before you begin? Be nice if it did. If nothing else it might allow the tanks and melee DPS to see the boss mechanics, rather than the boss nether-regions 😎

Loremaster Insanity

Now that I’m Netherdraked, I’m pondering what the next goal for Bane should be. And for reasons probably best left unexplored (but where’s the fun in that?) Loremaster is calling.

Loremaster is insane. Not as insane as Insane in the Membrane, but insane nevertheless. Who in their right mind wants to complete 2700+ quests, spreadeagled all over every continent, with the reward being a nice title and funny meta-tabard? A lot of people apparently!

There’s been a lot of discussion about the worth/value/fun of Achievements, and plenty of gentle mocking and evil marketing plans, but there’s no question they’ve extended the longevity and appeal of WoW. Loremaster is the kind of thing that no-one would have attempted before Achievements were created, because no-one even knew it was a ‘thing’. By exposing the mechanical statistical details behind the game, Blizz opened up a whole new source of obsession and compulsion.

I haven’t seen a satisfactory answer to why Achievements are so successful, whether it be WoW, MW2, or foursquare. Chris Hecker posited that Achievements are harmful, in response to Jesse Schell wanting to make brushing your teeth an Achievement. Do we need Achievements to play a game these days, or should story and gameplay be enough?

There’s always been the obsessive collectors, and the hoarders, and the trainspotting brigade. Pokemon was probably the first game to really tap into and nail the collecting mentality, and Edge Magazine recently declared the unexpected success of Crackdown was due to the uncontrollable drive it created to collect all 500 Agility Orbs.

People like being rewarded. Sid Meier described how Civilization was originally going to have Dark Ages, to mimic the peaks and troughs of human society. But people would abandon their game and start a new one whenever the pits occured in game. His solutions: Golden Ages instead. Like Blizzard decided with WoW, make everything epic, and people will enjoy themselves more.

Achievements are like that: they give people small incremental rewards for doing ‘stuff’. Some are silly and fun, some are the result of hours of hard work, and some happen by accident. But they all deliver a pat on the back and a reward for simply playing. It’s easier than achieving in the real world, they’re measureable and you know you can get most of them.

So I’m thinking about Loremaster. Either that or level another alt :-). Maybe a BElf pally who I can switch to Tauren the minute Cat launches. Sheesh talk about busy work, shouldn’t I be writing a comic or cooking some tofu or creating an iphone app or something? Nah.

Mass Effected

I played the opening chapter of Mass Effect the other night, and it was superb. Terrific voice acting, nice cut scenes and story development, and an interesting plot. The NPCs are well designed, adhering to stereotypes but not in a /facepalm way. Channelling Helen Mirren as the ship Medic is a nice touch 🙂

The voice acting was the most surprising thing. Whenever I start a game I always turn subtitles on (in case of interruption or distraction) and normally end up turning down the voices in a game, but this was so well done that I listened to every word. The dialogue trees in particular are fun to explore – the choices you are given are more about the “feel” of your reply than the actual words. So for example the tree option will read “Do you agree Captain?”, but what you actually say will be more detailed, with interesting intonation and sometimes surprising emphasis. Which is far more satisfying than just hearing the avatar speak the exact words you just chose.

All of which gives me sudden new hope for the “all spoken dialogue all the time” approach that Star Wars: The Old Republic is taking. I had thought that this would be impossibly dull, and would instead become an “all skipping all the time” system. But if they can make it as interesting and well acted as ME, then maybe it will work. At least for the first toon 🙂

The combat was a bit chaotic to begin with, I wasn’t sure exactly what I was doing with the various weapon options. I ramped the difficulty down (is “ramping down” even a legitimate concept?) as I am more interested in the unfolding story than struggling with a 3rd person shooter. I even almost let go of the instinctive mix-max character levelling process, setting my squad to “auto-level”, and generally letting the game recommend my skill upgrades. I don’t think that will last (I want to max out my “charisma” settings to open up more dialogue trees for example), but it makes for a more relaxing game experience. No meta-gaming, no Gamefaqs, and the game is still entirely playable and enjoyable.

The huge advantage a single player game has over the MMO is that the designers have total control over the plot. Cut scenes and dialogue choices force you to pay attention and make decisions. The downfall can be that if those scenes and choices are poorly implemented, you’ll lose interest in the game pretty quickly. That’s definitely not the case with ME.

Compare this to Warcraft, where no matter how often I vow to read the quest text, it very rarely happens. The advent of TourGuide and the like means it’s more zen to just click accept, follow the TomTom arrow, stomp something, and hand in. Blizz’s own improved quest tracking only reinforces the “a-b-c” approach to levelling. The only time I stop and pay attention is if something about the quest is particularly lore relevant (Wrathgate being the obvious example), but even then I often miss it due to the incredible complexity of the WoW backstory. There’s very few quest chains I can recall with fondness, despite levelling many-a-toon. Mulgore is the only exception, because, well, it’s Mulgore.

ME is compelling, good looking, interesting to watch, with some nice direction and the feeling that the game universe is super solid. Being in space after spending all that Warcraft fantasy time is refreshing to say the least – Outland notwithstanding 😉

Endgame freedom?

Spinks the Wise has a nice rambling post up about hitting the level cap in LotRO, which reaches a surprising but very insightful conclusion: “It’s amazing how free you feel once you decide that you don’t want to get tied into the endgame grind.”

That made me rock back in my chair a little. What a concept: reaching the endgame and then…  enjoying the world. No badge grinds for gear, stat upgrades, LFD or PUG raiding.  Just fishing, crafting, noodling around.

For this approach to work, the game has to support that kind of play. And it sounds like LotRO does exactly that, with a combination of epic lore based book quests, virtues and deeds, and the well received skirmish system (that scales the same content from solo to raid groups).

“Go play a single player game” you might argue. But one of the attractions of an MMO is chatting away to friends online whilst you noodle. And MMOs have the huge advantage of being an ever (slowly) changing landscape – each new addition to the game gives new content to explore and share. This is especially true in LotRO, where the new content advances the Fellowship storyline.

If you’re not tied up in endgame progression and ‘keeping up’, MMOs allow you to  park your toon for a while then come back when some new content is offered up. DLC can offer some of that for single player games, but the sharing and social aspects aren’t there.

Between Spinks’ post and Syp’s re-entry into Middle Earth, LotRO sounds very tempting. My gamer group tried it briefly once, but quickly retreated back to Warcraft, mainly due to not having the energy to reinvest in a new MMO. But the Spinks perspective is enough to make me consider rolling around Hobbiton solo-MMO style. If it was free-to-play I’d be in there now, but committing to a sub takes a bit more consideration – and I can’t turn off WoW, I’ve got to keep up 😉

Numbers or Names?

Does anyone else find having a goal of reaching 542 defence rating less interesting than a goal of obtaining gear such that you become The Uncrittable? Or obsessing over a 164 Expertise rating instead of being The Finisher? I know I’d rather be aiming for an Undeniable set bonus than two pieces of something rated 264.

Surely it would be possible to design a game so that the numbers are more hidden, at least to the casual masses. EJs will still want to min-max based on figures, but I’d be surprised if the majority wouldn’t prefer titles or visual indicators once they reached certain milestones.

Achievements allow that in a way. You can see each step to Epic for example, so why not also have some non-numeric means of letting people see their progress toward key statistical milestones.

It could be something like the paper doll that shows when your gear is broken – but instead of showing damage, it shows how close each piece is to the magical goals. It would get pretty complicated with all the myriad stats, but with the coming Cataclysm stat simplification, surely it would be possible.

I’d bet the vast majority of the player base would have no idea that their are certain numeric goals for each stat. Which leads to fail PUGs and finger pointing. But if you could work it so that it was more obvious, and more intuitive, then more players would be at least equipped well enough to hold their own.

Don’t get me wrong, I enjoy crunching spreadsheets, working out gear rankings, and planning upgrades. But all of that work is a meta-game, and it’s all for the minority of players. Better to put the basics in game,  make it visual so people can see what they’re aiming for, and reward players for reaching those goals.

MMO Exclusivity

Since I started playing Warcraft, I don’t think I’ve played any other game in anger. Any. That is bizarre, given it’s been 2 years or so. Before WoW (WoW-BC) I would play games like NWN, KotoR, HL2, etc. Post WoW (WoW-AD) those kind of games are all languishing in my Steam queue unplayed. I still buy the occasional game (hello Dragon Age) with the intent to play them, but never seem to get around to it – the siren call of WoW always wins.

This is probably not a good thing.

And yet I can’t seem to find the time required to invest in a new game (which is not an FPS or something of similar pick-up-and-play simplicity) and also keep Warcraft chugging along. The only other game I play regularly is Civ4, and that is only as a participant in a PBEM game with a few friends – in other words, about 1 minute of play every few days.

This kind of MMO-obsession, or MMO-exclusivity, is nothing new. It’s probably even an official affliction these days, like being Tiger Woods. It is strange however that one game can absorb all your gaming time and needs. Sometimes I resent it, which is also not a good thing.

I’m not sure what the conclusion here is, and maybe one game is enough. But I can’t help feeling like I’m missing out on all that other gaming action that people rave about – Mass Effect 2 being the latest.

In fact, I’m going to fire up Steam right now, and download Mass Effect 1 (I’m a series completionist at heart). And I’m determined to actually play it. Lok’tar!

Old skool PVP

There’s an interesting thread over at slashdot asking where are the Ultima Online style MMOs. Whilst the question is broad, the discussion revolves around the pros and cons of the Player Killer, aka PVP.

In UO, it sounds like everywhere was a PVP zone, other than the cities. So the minute you stepped outside a city, you were a target. That is pretty hardcore, and no doubt led to a lot of rage quitting by the more PVE oriented crowd before the non PK shard was created. There was even a feature which was meant to discourage PKers by eventually giving them a title so all could see what a horrible ganker they were. Which of course failed miserably as a discouragement, as what PKer wouldn’t want to the world to know just how nasty they are??

I played most of my WoW career on a PVP server (Barthilas), before transferring to Feathermoon (RP-PVE). I’m a poor excuse for a PVP player, and would just sit and take it when being ripped apart in Ganklethorn Vale or mining in Sholazar. Meeting outside dungeons was always a fraught experience, with places like Nexus and UK often dissolving into a PVP battle just to get in the door. Even after a 9 months on Feathermoon, I’m still surprised when I can compete in the STV fishing comp and not need a guild escort to keep the gankers away.

And whilst I never really participated in that kind of world PVP, it’s funny how I kind of miss it. It added an edge to the game that PVE realms simply don’t have. You never quite felt safe, and the cries for help on chat were often met with swift main-swapping to rid The Barrens of an Alliance camper destroying baby Horde toons. And of course you occasionally encountered famous gankers, who would always demand your immediate attention – one tormentor of our guild, who went by the handle lolpewpew (the name alone tells the story!) still has a standing kill order despite being on another realm 🙂

PVP realms are the minority, partly due to the Sheep/Wolf ratio discussed at Slashdot, and partly due to the almost guaranteed gear level difference in random PVP which means the target of the attack will most likely not be in a position to fight back. Even in gear-balanced controlled-duel environments such as RogueRogue sets up, it is very difficult for the non-fight-opener to recover for a victory.

Despite all of the balance issues and a general lack of PVP skill, most of our guild members sound almost wistful when they reflect on our days on Barthilas. It wasn’t the PVP itself, or the victory rush or red rage, it was the edge given by unpredictability – and unpredictability is something to be treasured in an MMO world which is otherwise so tightly controlled.