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.

There are 50 million bands out there

Another week of food for thought.

Sad news this week with the death of Alex Chilton, vocalist with legendary band Big Star. Many many great tunes, listen to them covered at  at Cover Lay Down, then go buy #1 Record.

In which Bane develops a…bane

Make it go away!

Things I can’t do:

  • Fly an aeroplane
  • ‘Get’ Jazz
  • Cook tempura
  • Leverage the low hanging fruit
  • Tank HoR

One of these things is easier than the rest. Our guild whistled through it with Pallytank, but endlessly wiped with me. It’s not a gear check for the tank, it’s a “are you a nub” check, and I just can’t get it going. It wouldn’t matter if I was geared out in Tier 27. Gear doesn’t help with taunting, tab targeting, dealing with ranged, and noticing my healer being destroyed.

Stupid Mages fireballing people to death, or even worse Rifleman standing in the middle of the room and  pewpewing people down. Killed by a trash hunter, the ultimate shame.

Ghostcrawler says there’s no way they’d introduce a mechanism where “everything is pretty much taunted to you the whole time”, and of course they shouldn’t, but right now I’d pay cash money for that ability.

It’s now become an official “thing” for me, so that I’m pretty much doomed before we even start – or as aptly put it when talking about this exact instance, “fear is the mind killer“.

After rage quitting the instance, I had miles of fun facerolling through normal instances levelling our 76 Druid healer in PuGs. We were complimented on our healer/tank-work, which was nice but also silly given I am geared enough for starter 10 mans and Heroic everything else. I used to think OPing instances was lazy, it should be a challenge, make it hard, blah blah. Now I see the error in that thinking. As our healer said after wipe 18, “let’s do something fun”. Exactly!

/LFD normal-mode-anything-but-Icecrown

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.

On Wings of Nether

Some grinds are worth every minute

I finally got my Netherwing Drake, a thing of great beauty and the most gorgeous mount in the game. It may not have the heft of the Protodrakes, or the scarcity of the Icebound Frostbrood Vanquishers (though they too look amazing), but it has such grace, elegance, and presence.

My approach was pretty bog standard: do all the one-off rep quests as they came up, obviously, and then just rotate through all the dailies. I got to Honored pretty quickly, had a break, and then worked through to Exalted. There was nearly always one or two others grinding away, which was fun to see. It’s nothing on the pain of the (pre-nerf) Hodir grind – no infuriating timesink design like the Spy Hunter wolf/dwarf quest – though you were sent back and forth over Shadowmoon Valley a few times too many, and as far afield as far West Nagrand.

One thing that really helped was being on a US timezone server – I’d be jumping on at 8-9PM Sydney time, which translates to 1-2AM US. Due to the low population at that time, there were usually plenty of stray Netherwing Eggs to be found, which is a bonus 250 rep per egg. It was always a thrill spotting one smoking away. There’s a great “Netherwing Loop” YouTube video by wowangel showing a route to follow for all the known egg spawn points. I found eggs in most of the marked locations over the course of the grind, as well as a fair few in the mines, so it’s an accurate map.

Some of the quests are pretty fun – in particular the Drake racing sequence, which gets progressively harder as you beat each racer. And throwing an old boot at lazy peons was fun for a while, though having to do 20 got tired pretty quickly.

The cleverest thing Blizzard did was to replace your standard flyer with a Drake whenever you are in the Netherwing zone. It means every time you go there you think “oh yes, I need to have this”, and the crushing disappointment of flipping back to your Swift Wind Rider when you re-enter normal space drives you on toward the Exalted goal.

I can’t even imagine how painful it would have been to do this at level 70, when you’d actually have to fight the mobs instead of facerolling through them.

But the reward speaks for itself.

One percent

A spontaneous guild group formed last night and we cleaned our way through normal ToC, FoS, and PoS nice and easy. And even finally scored some upgrades for our Healer, and some boots for me.

ToC was a bit of a pain when we got some kind of bugged opening joust which meant it went on f.o.r.e.v.e.r. The jousting is bad enough without it never ever ending, sob. We eventually zoned out and reset, which fixed everything.

FoS and PoS were easy enough, other than when we tried to race up the PoS ramp after Krick and managed to catch the tail end of one mob for the accidental wipe. Exploits rarely seem to work, though this one would be worth getting right to avoid those annoying 5 pulls.

So we once again reached our bette noir, HoR, at 1130PM. We thought we’d give it one shot, and call it if we failed. It was much better this time despite the hour. We made our way smoothly to Falric, and we had him, before a 1% wipe.

Has anyone done the math on 1% wipes – they seem way too common to be legit? I remember countless one percenters in Kara and Outland heroics, and maybe even a few with Anub’Rekhan in Naxx. Maybe the last 2-5% is rounded to 1%, just to make it that much more painful 🙂

It’s pretty funny ruing a 1% wipe on normal mode mini bosses, when others are having the same kind of wipes on the Heroic mode LK himself. But who cares, we’re loving it!

It gets late early out there

The (half) weekly roundup:

  • Spinks mounts a nice defence of TotC as a raid trainer, given “it’s not possible to really learn how to play your class in heroics any more” – and bemoans Blizzard’s lack of in game mechanisms for player to player coaching.
  • Alison Roberts, still the best writer by a mile, on how hard it is to learn to tank given the high expectations of LFD: “Everyone wants an experienced professional. Nobody wants to be there for the learning process”
  • Chastity at Righteous Orbs likes the ICC buff and doesn’t care about the boasting: “it seems that somehow, in the minds of a great many people, the moment somebody gets the World First Arthas kill that’s it, and Wrath is all over bar shouting”
  • Rob Pardo, Blizz Supremo, presents an interesting insight into Blizzard’s design processes: “Easy to learn and almost impossible to master / Make everything overpowered”. Worth flicking through all the slides at the end.
  • Ferrel at Epic Slant wants to slow down the levelling race: “MMORPGs need to adopt the Dungeons & Dragons model once more where the game is less about reaching the next level and more about enjoying the ride”. Ties in with his earlier argument to stop level cap increases as the higher the cap the bigger the mountain facing new players: “Additional levels also stratify the player base and create a level disparity”
  • For all of y’all DKs out there, Gravity is taking a stab at creating the definitive DK forums

In other news, Civ V was announced, and at the GDC Civ creator/god Sid Meier discussed  why everything game devs know is wrong.

Hard Easy Modes

Reading posts about guilds bashing their heads stubbornly against an seemingly insurmountable foe is inspiring and terrifying. Gravity tweeted about an 22 wipe night with his 10 man strict group (followed by a 16 wipe victory!), and Feist’s 25 man hard mode frustration speaks for itself.

On the complete opposite end of the progression spectrum, our guild hit a similar barrier last night in Halls of Reflection. Normal mode. On the trash waves between Falric and Marwyn. So not quite the level of epic our erstwhile twitterers have reached 🙂

But it was nevertheless a fun if insanely expensive and blood curdlingly annoying experience. We’d tried it a few weeks ago and failed to even get to Falric, whereas this time we downed him for the first time thanks to better tactics and clutch healing. Which led to much clenched fist “c’mons” before at all started again.

But we just couldn’t quite get past the next 5 waves. We did get to Marwyn twice, though each time with two DPS toasted so no way of finishing him off. I’d curse Blizz for not allowing our downed compatriots to bampf back in mid encounter, but I guess that would make the fight a doddle.

Zomg it’s a tricky event. I’ve pugged it several times on my Rogue and zerged through thanks to OP groups, but with a slightly-undergeared slightly-undertrained strict 5 man guild like us, it’s a real challenge. It’s enclosed, chaotic, you have to take down the mobs in order (Priest – Rogue – Casters – Melee) so I was trying to mark on the run, and PLEASE STOP HITTING THE HEALER LOOK-AT-ME LOOK-AT-ME!

I struggled mightily with picking up the adds as they came in, always seeming to lose one, who inevitably one-shot our healer. The Shadow Mercenary in particular was trouble. B@stard rogues!

And yet inch by inch we were progressing. We’d get one wave further each time, only for me to lose my agro seeking focus at the critical moment, or the healer getting frozen just as I got clobbered by something. It really felt like if we could just keep our healer up  – i.e. my main job beside getting wailed on – then we’d make it. Aargh!

I started to feel like a failtank even though I really thought we could do it, so we swapped in our fresh 80 Tankadin for my Warrior, hoping the improved AoE threat would help. To no avail – staying alive and doing enough DPS and holding agro and healing through it all seem to be mutually exclusive on this fight.

So it was nuts. We wiped and wiped and repaired and repaired. But we kept coming back, and everyone kept wanting one last try. We nailed Falric (who dropped nothing of any use, naturally). And though we didn’t get past Marwyn (maybe just as well given the LK phase to come!), it did give us a truckload of experience of working together to try and nut a tactic out and progress.

And I got to understand better what the high end raiders are talking about when they say that endless wipes doesn’t always mean epic fail.


This is to scold myself into improving – using the Warrior toolkit and paying attention. To wit:

  • Watch my health bars – too often guilty of letting the healer do all the work, without saving myself (and their mana) when the situation gets desperate
  • Watch the healer! Dang blast it, he died a lot of times when I just wasn’t paying attention to the fact he was being fireballed or backstabbed to smithereens. If the healer dies it’s my fault, and he died a lot
  • Get my spell interrupting keys better mapped – I’m always too tardy in using them
  • Use Heroic Strike! It’s bound to my mouse button, but i still forget. Grrr.
  • While we’re at it: keep shouts up! Use Intervene/Intercept! KEEP THE HEALER ALIVE!!


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 😉