Monday, July 26, 2010

The Importance of Customer Support

Team Fortress 2 is now close to three years old and it still has tons of players. I got it out of the dust again to "play a few more rounds" only to notice that I've now put in another 20 hours. It's one of those games I reinstall every half year to play some more. And why did I get it out this time? Well, for the engineer update of course. Just like I got it out last time to enjoy the medic or the heavy update. Taking a look at those hilarious introductions is enough to make me want to play. In fact, those introductions together with Valves "introducing the..." videos are the funniest series I've seen on the net.  Since I haven't played the game in a year there's also a lot of new stuff to do. Extra achievements to get, extra items to get and a few new maps. Oh, and best of all you can now get hats! The continous stream of updates is enough to make old timers revisit the game from time to time.

Besides releasing free upgrades Valve has also just released out Alien Swarm, a top down co-op shooter where, you'll never guess, you go and kill as many aliens as you can. Best of all, this game is free! I've spent a few hours with it and I have to say that it's an good game. The game pitches four players against an endless swarm of enemies. Your medic heals, the commander gives out ammo, the engineer hacks terminals and the soldier does what he does best: blow up those aliens real good. You can get your feet wet in the single player mode but the multiplayer is where the real game is at. It's a bit short right now, you can finish a single campaign in about two hours. A game editor is released with the game however so it's only a matter of time until some great community maps are released.

Another company that keeps on releasing freebies after a games release is of course Blizzard. Starcraft got free maps and the games latest patch is from last year. Years later, Warcraft 3 even got a full RPG campaign released in multiple parts: a free-time project of one of their game designers and one hell of a fun campaign too. WoW is of course their champion. Between expansions you get a lot of nice extras. Dual specs, extra levelling content, seasonals, extra instances, it's only a small part of the stuff they keep releasing.

For WoW there's an obvious reason to keep giving out "free" content. Without enough content players will just stop playing. And it's not really free of course, you already pay a sum at the end of each month. But for one time payment games? I bought the Orange Box three years ago, they won't gain an extra cent by giving me extra maps and updates. So why do they release it? These games do have one thing in common: they're multiplayer games. If I start playing TF2 again and praise it to some friends one might be eager to join me and buy the game. Praising Alien Swarm will get friends to install steam, Valves online game selling shop where they might buy a few other games. Keeping Warcraft up to date will make sure that players have something to do until their next game is released.  And of course it's great for your company's reputation. Valve and Blizzards games are the only games I'll buy with my eyes closed. I know that they will create great games which will be supported for a long time to come. Other game companies could learn a thing or two from Valves and Blizzards support.

Meet the spy:

Meet the heavy:

Wednesday, June 30, 2010

Majesty - The Fantasy Kingdom

Majesty breezed a fresh new wind through the RTS genre ten years ago. Here's a game where you do not control your heroes! Instead you can convince them to help your cause by giving out rewards for killing monsters or raiding lairs. While fighting for your heroes slowly gain levels and power. Loosing a high level wizzard will cause you to care! The original majesty was a great game. It's one of the very few games that I replay once a year. Even now it remains fresh which is helped by the randomized mission generation. So I looked forward to its sequel. Having finished Majesty 2 and nearing the finish of its expansion, Kingmaker I can say that it's still a good game but not great.

What is this game missing that the original had? Charm for the most part. The original characters all had their own personalities. You'd have rogues who were the first to go after any bounty... and the first to flee at the first sight of danger. Muscled barbarians ran around the realm in a great homage to Arnolds Schwarzeneggers Conan. Paladins would raid any evil lair in their quests to clear the map of evil and wizards were bearded old men which fit the glass canon archetype perfectly. There was some strategy involved in your choice of your classes. You had to choose between the defense oriented dwarfs or the economy base elves. And taking the powerful priests of krypta meant that you had to do without the all powerful paladins. And even though those paladins were very good all-rounders having a few priests around sure helped when a a dragon decided to pay a visit to your castle.

Both the charm and the strategical choices seem to have vanished in the sequel. There are more classes to choose from but these classes just feel like copies. There's little difference between an elf, a ranger, a beastmaster or an archer of Helia. In the original game the AI would be different. Elves would hang around in taverns and be eager to go for gold rewards while rangers would scout. Here I'd just add any one of them to my party and call them ranged dps. It doesn't really seem to matter which class you add to your party.

Majesty 2 does add a few nice, new extras. The biggest improvement is the inn. You can now gather up to four heroes and create a new group. This group will from then on fight as one. Adding a warrior tank, a cleric healer, a melee rogue dps and a ranger goes a long way towards clearing whatever is in your way. It's a lot of fun to see your group take off to distant lands, kill a great monster and return to your city with their purses full of gold to spend on new equipment in your shops. The new spells each basic class have are also fun. Levelling your guilds means that your heroes can learn powerful new spells. Sadly these spells are not available for the higher tier classes. And most of these spells don't look very spectacular. In the original game getting a wizard with meteor storm was a great achievement. Here anyone seems to be able to pick up the spells and combined with their blandness it's a missed opportunity to add a great new feature.

All in all the sequel does not live up to the original game. For anyone who wants to try out something new I'd advise them to give the original, brilliant Majesty a try. That game still holds up very well after ten years and can be bought for only €5 on steam or impulse. The sequel still offers a nice game and it's well worth giving the demo a try if you enjoy the original. And maybe the DLC can add those special ingredients to make it a great game too.

Monday, June 21, 2010

Civilization 4

Five years ago I gave the Civilization 4 demo a try. An hour later I gave up on it. Seeing the game with all its expansions packs on Steam for €11 made me give it another try. And 40 hours of playing later I'm glad I did!

These days most strategy games seem to be only about one thing: killing as many enemies as brutal as you can. The trend has been to lower the "strategy" part in favour of more action. Base building? Games like Dawn of War 2 remove it to leave only the fighting.  Dawn of War 2 is a fun on its own but you can hardly call it a strategy game. Dawn of War 2 is more an action/RPG game than a strategy game. So amongst these so called strategy games it's great to see that companies still create more serious games. Civilization V is on the horizon and in the meantime we can still enjoy its predecessor and its many mods.

Civilizations main selling point isn't the fighting. It's even an optional thing to do. Indeed, I won a "culture game" without killing a single enemy unit. Well, fighting is mostly optional... In that game my neighbour suddenly invaded me with an army ten times the size of mine. The only reason I survived is by a Deus Ex Machina in the form of my second, friendly neighbours papal order to stop the war between us. Anyone who wants to survive in this game should keep Sun Tzu's "In peace prepare for war, in war prepare for peace" at the back of his head. In fact, fighting can get you to *loose* a game. I lost one space victory by a single turn. Afterwards I was contemplating just what I did wrong. And I came to the conclusion that I wasted my resources a century before the space race to conquer my neighbour. His rich cities were great targets for my technologically superior troops. Conquering them I did but if I had spent all those resources into research I would have won the game!

So if it's not about the fighting what is it about? You start with a single settler and you build or conquer until you span a continent. Your researchers take your civilization from the invention of the wheel and bow and arrow through the discovery of the art of printing to fusion power. Building the Taj Mahal and the Great Pyramids make sure that your cities are the cultural crosspoints of the world. You found Christianity and spread it across the world. In the mean time you send spies out to your neighbours to poison their waters and are being generous to your neighbour who works as a buffer to your arch enemy. And of course your berserkers pillage and conquer a city from time to time...

You can do all that which makes it a complex game. But as so often specializing is the key. Early on you should decide if you want to enter the path of the fist, go for a cultural victory or be the first to send astronauts to Alpha Centauri. The AI is doing a good job of giving you some competition. They might be very friendly towards you but if you neglect your military they will act. The power of religion also becomes clear through diplomacy. Having the same religion as your neighbours gives a huge boost to your relations.

Civilization 4 is a great game which makes me look forward to the next instalment. I'll definitely be putting more time in the series. And there still seem to be a few interesting mods to try out. I'd love to give Fall from Heaven a try one of these days. It's great to see that in these days of dumbing down everything there is still place for complex games which require more than two braincells.

Tuesday, June 8, 2010


So my WoW warrior finally dinged 80 yesterday. I started preparing for this great event two weeks ago by buying good blue and epic tanking gear whenever I found some for a reasonable price. If there were none available I gathered the mats and paid someone 30g to craft it. Mind you, this character is on a new server so I didn't have a 50K honeypot to lick out. But I managed to make about 5000 gold on this new server while levelling from level 51 to 80 just by shifting some items. Plenty enough gold to get a nice starting set so I can get started. Before I put on the gear I had 19.311 hp and 508 defense. After I put it all on, gemmed it and gave it some basic enchanments I had 24.000 hp and 540 defense. Just enough to start heroics! And an hour after I dinged I finished my first heroic, The Violet Hold. There's still a lot of improvements to be made to my warriors gear but if there wasn't there wouldn't be any fun in doing heroics!

The last five levels were fun. I started to enjoy the random dungeon finder more and more. I ended up doing nothing but instances to get the last five levels. As a tank the queue times are near instant and with the added XP bonus it's a decent way to level. One random instance a day would ensure I always had full rested XP and the first day extra bonus. The quality of the pugs themselves vary greatly and that does cause a major difference in levelling speed. One moment you'll have a group which clears the instance as smooth as a knife cuts through butter. And the next one you might wipe after two minutes. If that happens there's usually only a very small chance to successfully complete an instance. Leaving the instance gives you a thirty minutes debuff which disables you to join a new instance during that period of time.

Instead of leaving the instance you can try to remove the bad apples. You do need the majority of the votes to do this and sadly it seemed that some players just don't want to kick anyone at all. Trying to kick a DPS who does a fifth of the tanks damage and is too low for this instance? Kick failed. Trying to kick that druid healer who is healing in feral gear with a feral talent spec with less mana than his hunter friend? Failed as his hunter guildie would never kick him after which I just left them and too the penalty. Trying to kick that AFK lock? Fail, "you cannot kick this player for another fifteen minutes. That last message makes no sense at all to me. If someone is kicked there's a very good reason that he is kicked. So why can we not kick him again? It just ends with the player being kicked after fifteen minutes anyway, two minutes before the end boss.

What's up next? I'll spend some time tanking heroics and improving my gear. The new epics I gather will get a nice new enchantment. And after that? I'm not sure yet. Once I have everything I need from the heroics there's little use to continue playing. So I assume that I'll just go and do something else. In the meantime though, I've got a cutesy little warrior who's screaming for new gear.

Monday, May 31, 2010

A Clash of Kings - George R.R. Martin

The second book of the "A song of Ice and Fire" series picks up the story where "A Game of Thrones" left it. The first novel divided the kingdom, this second novel leaves those who are left to pick up and mend the pieces. And that's not an easy job. "There are more kings in this kingdom than there are dogs" one poor citizen mentions. Not less than seven self proclaimed kings have a claim at the throne and each one has an army to back it. Some are even looking at more exotic ways to win the iron throne...

The book follows the survivors from the previous novel and adds one new person. Davos is an ex smuggler who is very grateful to his lord, the rightful king of the Seven Kingdoms, Stannis Baratheon. A decade ago he smuggled onions to the besieged castle at Storms End. Stannis gave him a lordship with one hand but took away his left hands fingers with the other one as he believed that everyone must pay for his sins no matter how heroic they act now. Small wonder that Stannis is the least popular king of them all. Davos however doesn't hold a grudge against his king and he's even keeping his fingers in a pocket around his neck for good luck. He's an interesting person to follow. Clever and we can still feel the commoners blood flow through him even if his sons already feel of the higher class. Davos himself however, is not one to forget his past and he always speaks his mind to Stannis.

The old favourites have returned too. I mentioned that the dwarf Tyrion and the boy-like girl Arya are my favourites and this books only adds to that. Especially Tyrion gets a major part in this book. He's acting as hand of the king and as such he's doing a far better job than his predecessor. Intelligence and cunning go hand in hand as he intuitively knows how to plot and bargain to keep his kingdom safe. And even though he's not afraid to kill or even torture people to that end he remains sympathetic. For a big part it's because he remains loyal to his family. His companions mention how much easier his life would be without his cousin and he's always got to watch his back to see if his sisters fangs aren't in it but he loves his family and wouldn't hurt them. He's also showing a deep affection towards his beloved one, a hooker he has to keep locked in a pretty cage filled with silk. All of this makes sure that he keeps his human side. -

We're also following how Arya makes her way back to the North. Her sister, Sansa has gotten a deeply needed wake up call and her love for her captors turns into hate while she still manages to show them a smile. Daenerys, Catelyn and Jon have smaller rolls in this novel but there seems to be  build up to the following books. A lot of the major events are only seen as sideline stories through their eyes. A castle can fall and they might find out like everyone else, through gossip or a carrier raven. It makes them all feel like small radars in a bigger clockwork. Still, with this huge cast of characters, to me the highlights of this amazing book were the Tyrion chapters.

And let it be clear that his is an amazing book. Tons of things are happening at once but Martin manages to keep it all in check. The book is a huge one but it needs all those pages to tell this complex story, there are no filler pages in here. These series are on a different level than most other fantasy novels. Few manage to tell such a great story so flawlessly It makes me long to read the next book in the series and hope that George R.R. Martin can finish the next books in the following decade.

Wednesday, May 26, 2010

Eragon - Telling a consistent story

If you want to convince your public that your world is real you have to be consistent. You can't just change the rules in the middle of the story. Let alone doing it multiple times after each other. Case in point? The movie Eragon.

Eragon is about a boy who finds a pretty stone. Not long after the "stone" breaks open a cute, tiny little dragon appears (very similar to the dragon eggs found in A Song of Ice and Fire). I have no problems with fantasy so I'll happily buy dragons, wizards and elves. What I won't buy however is that as soon as the tiny dragon flies ten metres up in the air it suddenly changes into a huge dragon. Seems like some very powerful dragon magic... and a convenient way to prevent us from having to wait twenty years until the dragon is fully grown and the boy no longer a cute movie star.

Sadly from there on it only gets worse and worse. At one moment the protagonist decides to go rescue the girl even though his mentor tells him it's a foolish thing to do. He mounts his dragon and flies off to the castle that's at the other side of the country. He rescues the girl and right when he's about to get his ass kicked his mentor storms in and saves him! Huh, how did he get there? Five minutes ago he was at the other side of the country riding a horse. Are dragons as slow as horses? Possibly but later in the movie we see the dragon thundering over horses at speeds which would make a jet pilot envious.

The mentor gets wounded while saving the boy and his wounds need to be healed by the rebels who are of course at the other side of the country where they started in the first place. No problem I'd think, jump with three on the dragon and off you go. But the dragon can't fly a long time with three people on his back! The obvious choice would be to tie the man with ropes to the dragon and let them fly at Mach 1 speed to the rebels. That would be too simple of course so they decide to ride all the way to there on a horse...

Once they're there the big battle against the evil king is right around the corner (where do the baddies suddenly all come from?). The rebels "work all night" to create a magnificent armour piece for the dragon which shields it from tip to toe. Wait a minute, the dragon can't wear three people but she can wear full plate armour and have a fully armoured rider on her back? Sigh, talk about consistency. Once the baddies do arrive the dragon can suddenly also breath fire from one minute to the next. And the battle itself? A dragon which flies high above the ground and is able to burn a hundred soldiers at once doesn't really offer a challenging fight. I rather felt pity for the poor fellows on the ground.

It's sad to see all these inconsistencies. Once you start seeing one you start seeing one after the other. So if you do write a story then please think it through. At least try to come up with an explanation why key characters sometimes move from one place to the other or why the dragon can suddenly fry and fly. I do hope that the book is better then the movie but I won't find out any time soon as the movie has made me loose all interest in the series.

Monday, May 17, 2010

Hybrid Power

At the start of WoW warriors tanked and all other hybrids healed. The damage dealing was left for the pure DPS classes and I was happy to do so with my mage. Sure, our guild had a warrior and maybe a kitten damage dealer but druids or paladins weren't good enough to tank an end-game raid instance. And back then that worked fine. A raid needed 40 players and there were 8 classes. So you'd have about 5 warriors in your raid, enough to tank every instance. Perfect for raids but it caused a problem for dungeons. There you need one tank, one healer and three DPS classes. If only one in eight can tank then there just aren't enough tanks.

In the Outland expansion every hybrid could tank as good as a warrior or heal as well as a priest while doing similar DPS to a pure DPS class. This was a great step to fix the shortage of tanks as suddenly three classes could tank. Of course this didn't completely solve the problem as most people are afraid of the responsibility to tank or heal a group. And now they *could* DPS! Players who used to be called loladins or retadins were suddenly on top of the damage meters.

Logically, I  wondered why the heck I would continue playing as a pure DPS class (warlock/mage). A hybrid in Outland did as much damage as a pure class and some even added irreplaceable extras to the raid. It went so far as to stack shaman upon shaman for the most competitive end-guilds. So since The Lich King I'm playing as a deathknight. When I was raiding at the start of the expansion, I was outdamaging all pure DPS classes while wearing plate and being able to tank heroics. Unfair? Yep!

Seeing how much benefits a hybrids class gets, a worgen Druid is on my wish list. I tried out the paladin but it was boring as hell (auto attack and click a button every 10s, how much fun). Cataclysm promises to improve the early levelling too so I'll give them another try. I've been wanting to try out a healer and a druid looks like a nice fit for me. Add to that that they can also tank and even do two kinds of DPS and we've got the ultimate class. With the new dungeon finder tool I've also noticed how short the queues are for my tank-warrior. The only times I have to wait is if the healer slot isn't filled yet. Levelling a druid through instances as both a tank and healer looks like a fun way to level with instant queue times. If you enjoy instancing then tanking or healing seems to be the way to go.

WoW is now in a state where you can finish everything with 25 druids. They can tank, heal and do both ranged and melee DPS. Why do we still have to roll anything else? I wonder if the pendulum hasn't gone from favouring pure classes to favouring hybrids too much. Five years ago hybrids were the black sheeps as they were all forced to heal. These days the DPS are the black sheeps: long queue times and they bring less to the table then their hybrid cousins. Makes me think twice before I'd roll another DPS class.

The fix seems simple to me. Let pure DPS do about 10% more DPS and give them a bit more utilities like CC and raid buffs. That way a good hybrid will still outdamage an average pure class and the utilities make sure that you want to balance your raid with all classes. It's fine that tanks and healers are all roughly equal, just give the DPS a benefit as they're already off worst.