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 😎

GTAIV, WoW, and cocaine

The Observer published a crushingly personal account of addiction to GTAIV combined with an equally crippling cocaine habit.

It’s a depressing and hard core world the author portrays – gaming day-in day-out, whilst keeping a cocaine habit going, and pretty much losing any connection to the world outside. There’s been many stories of WoW addiction, but the combination of an actual drug with a virtual one is the real killer.

Coke is to acid what jazz is to rock. You have to appreciate it. It does not come to you… And soon I realised what video games have in common with cocaine: video games, you see, have no edge. You have to appreciate them. They do not come to you.

There’s a same-but-different story on interviewing a player who is two dings away from ‘beating’ WoW: completing every in game achievement. He managed that by having a /played time of 491 days. That’s a staggering figure. In some ways this seems a parallel to the Observer tale, except there seems no equivalent story of a life gone off the rails. Perhaps there should be.

Both have that common gaming description of being in the zone, reaching an almost zen state of playing and the exultant state of emotional well being that brings:

Some achievements are a bit stressful and took some time, but at the end of the day when the [WoW] achievement frame is popping up, my heart is filled with peace and love.

I felt as intensely focused as a diamond-cutting laser; Grand Theft Auto IV was ready to go. My friend and I played it for the next 30 hours straight.

These are feelings I’m sure all gamers have experienced, though (hopefully) not with the same intensity, or the same consequences. There’s a joy to being so focussed in the moment and when everything comes together just so.

At the same time, there’s the danger of overdoing it. The WoW interviewee has some eerie parallels to the “first taste is free” tactic of the drug dealing fraternity:

We started with some easy stuff like LEEEEERRRRROOOOOOOYYYY!!!!!111 for warmup but went early to the battleground stuff. It was so much fun; I think we did that eight hours in a row before we felt asleep. =D The next day, we explored some zones, fished in some schools and stuff before we queued for battlegrounds again. The beginning time was absolutely amazing.

Games are an escape, a release valve, a way to zone out and forget the pressure of the day to day. The parallels to drugs are made strikingly clear by both these stories.

Adult taste can be demanding work – so hard, in fact, that some of us, when we become adults, selectively take up a few childish things, as though in defeated acknowledgment that adult taste, with its many bewilderments, is frequently more trouble than it is worth. Few games have more to tell us about this adult retreat into childishness than the Grand Theft Auto series.

I’m utterly unqualified to talk about drugs of any description, but the notion of retreat and escapism, be it via music or gardening or gaming or drugs, appears almost universal. Everyone seeks it in some way, just some methods are healthier than others. And of course it’s only when it’s taken to these kind of obsessive lengths that even healthy pursuits become ugly.

The point that hit home hardest for me was when the GTAIV player started talking about how he stopped seeking out books and stopped writing, two experiences which had previously been his lifeblood.

When the minds of the reader and writer perfectly and inimitably connect, objects, events and emotions become doubly vivid – more real, somehow, than real things. I have spent most of my life seeking out these connections and attempting to create my own. Today, however, the pleasures of literary connection seem leftover and familiar.

I’ve had a very similar experience since starting WoW. I’ve barely read a novel in two years, staying up late to immerse myself in the game world instead of the worlds created by words. The closest I’ve come is reading graphic novels, which don’t demand the same immersion and concentration (but can be just as rewarding).

Mind you he doesn’t necessarily resent this change  – not the games anyway (the cocaine is a different story) – believing that gaming has given him “not surrogate experiences, but actual experiences, many of which are as important to me as any real memories”, and that “today the most consistently pleasurable pursuit in my life is playing video games.”

Perhaps the most terrifying element of his story is that even though he’s off the coke, gaming still has a iron grip on his soul:

These days I have read from start to finish exactly two works of fiction – excepting those I was also reviewing – in the last year. These days I play video games in the morning, play video games in the afternoon and spend my evenings playing video games…

…For instance, I woke up this morning at 8am fully intending to write this article. Instead, I played Left 4 Dead until 5pm.

This is someone who’s recovered from something far worse. It just doesn’t seem like much of a recovery, and that’s a scary thought.

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 😉

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!

Starcraft Beta Marmot

I don’t play RTS. Despite trying again and again with Total War, I epic failed every time – there’s too much going on, especially for someone used to the sedate pace of Civilization. But Starcraft II is sorely tempting, mostly due to the Blizzard polish, the hype, and the beta raves. Lore has a great video review of the beta on Tankspot (of all places) if you’re tempted too.