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.

Monday, May 10, 2010

A Game of Thrones - George R.R. Martin

Five years ago I joined my first raiding guild in WoW. It was named "Fire and Blood" and its leaders were named Rhaegar and Lyanna. When I asked them where their beautiful names came from they told me they were from the "A song of Ice and Fire" series. Now, years later, I've picked up a copy of the first book in the series. The cover has great quotes from some of my favourite fantasy writers such as Feist, Wurts and Hobb. I was very curious to find out if the book really is the best fantasy series created this decade.

The story takes place in the fictional Seven Kingdoms. These kingdoms have been reigned by the Targaryen family for centuries. Their reign ended fifteen years ago when they were overthrown and the throne was claimed by the new, current king, Robert Baratheon. The kingdom remains united but there's a frail peace. The alliances formed in the war aren't forgotten so easily and it will take only a small fire to set the kingdom ablaze. The book follows a number of highborn persons as the wick to set it all of is growing shorter and shorter.

There's a huge cast of characters, the appendix contains twenty-five (!) pages giving us an overview of who is who. Luckily, we're only seeing the story through the eyes of a handful and these can be divided in three camps. The main part of the book follows the Stark family. They're the rulers of the harsh, northern regions of the country. Eddard Stark, the honest lord of the region is asked to advise his old friend, the king. His girls, Sansa and Arya follow him to the royal court while his sons, Bran and Robb are left to reign Winterfell. Jon, his bastard son is sent off to join the black garde, watchers of the northernmost region of the kingdom. Eddard and his son, Robb are both honest men. They're the kind of rulers who would cut of their own hand when they stole something. But how far will their honesty lead them in  a royal court filled with treacherous snakes? Sansa is the cute, naive one. She's in love with prince Joffrey and she dreams that he will take her away on his great, white horse and ride of into the sunset. Arya on the other hand would rather be a boy. She enjoys playing with the boys and she'd much rather be a warrior than a princess.

Opposed to the Starks are their arch enemies, the Lannisters. Cersei Lannister is the queen of the kingdom. Her major interest lays in making sure that her son, the heir to the kingdom can raise to the throne as fast as possible. Anyone standing in her way can better order a coffin. Even the king himself can better grow a pair of eyes on his back. Tyrion is the black sheep of the family. Or rather, a black lamb as he's only dwarf sized. What he's missing in length he's more than making up for with his tongue and he's delivering some of the most witty dialogues in the book

And finally, to the far east we're following the last of the Targaryens, the overthrown kings, Viserys and his sister Draenerys, nicknamed Dany. Viserys thinks of nothing but retaking the kingdom through force. He's even willing to sell his sister to the "barbarian" horselords of the plains. Dany, still a child of thirteen, is following her brother blindly. The horselords are clearly inspired by the Mongols of our medieval times. They're nomads travelling great distances living of the land and their horses. And they're only following the strongest leader. Luckily for the west, they're also divided in smaller tribes and only a great leader can unite them. But if that were to happen, their fighting style could crush everyone. Hit and run tactics using a bow and horse trampled all over Europe 800 years ago. Draenerys, being married to the greatest of these horselords is trying to convince her king to do just that to the Seven Kingdoms...

Unlike the eastern tribes where the leader is the strongest one the western kingdoms have a hereditary system. It quickly becomes obvious that not all the lords in the realm are as courageous as the Starks or as cunning as the Lannisters. Fifteen years ago the previous king Aerys, the mad king was overthrown. And in the southern realms the Arryn queen is still breastfeeding her seven year old prince and treating him like a porcelain doll. And just when their country needs a strong leader, king Robert obviously isn't up to the job. He's hunting and partying every day while his counsel leads the country. It's nice to see cast where not everyone is a hero or villain but where everyone has his own flaws and strengths. The characters feel less like typical fantasy persons but more like the cast of a Roman court.

The book is driven by a great caste and all of these persons are driven by their own history. The book is filled with a rich, historic background. Bit by bit we're seeing what happened fifteen years ago and how it affects them. Viserys is vengeance-mad and wants to reclaim the kingdom by all means. If we find out how the Usurpers killed his mother and slashed his baby brothers skull to a wall then it's not hard to figure out why he's like that. And seeing how the alliances were fifteen years ago it's no wonder that there's such animosity between the different factions who are officially at peace. The history is so interesting that I'd love to read a prequel about the events that happened back when the Mad King was overthrown.

Overall, this is a great read. It's filled with great characters which drive the story to a logical conclusion. If there's one point of criticism it's that not all characters were equally interesting. Of course it's hard to be as witty as Tyrion or as innocent as Arya, my two favourite persons. Eddard and Sansa Stark were too honest and serious for my liking. But as this is a book in multiple parts I'm sure that this will be solved in its sequels. At the end of the book Sansa has surely lost her naivete and her innocence. As such, I'm more than looking forward to reading the sequel!

Sunday, May 2, 2010

Eighteen months of changes

It's been a year and a half since the last WoW expansion. Back then I levelled my DPS deathknight from level 55 to 80. For these past few months the WoW microbe has been tickling again so it was time to start levelling a new character. I've still got a stabled level 70 mage, hunter and warlock but I decided to go and level my lvl 51 warrior as I want to try out a new play style, tanking. And it's surprising how much has changed in these past eighteen months.

The first thing I noticed is the big improvement in levelling speed. The levels seemed to fly past as I rushed to level 60. But not only those levels went by fast, the 60-70 range also goes by a lot faster. I still followed James Levelling Guide but I could skip entire zones. It only took me Hellfire Peninsula, Zangarmarsh, Nagrand and part of Blade's Edge to get to level 70. When the guide told me that I'd now ding level 62 I was already level 63. And the biggest change to this range is of course that I could now buy and use a flying mount the minute I reached level 60! Gathering quests suddenly get a lot easier and the overall levelling speed goes up significantly.

Since you can now use your flying mount at level 60 I expected to be able to fly in Nothrend too. It would certainly be useful in the Howling Fjord starting area which contains a lot of height differences. After googling a bit I found out that it's possible to do so when your main character buys a heirloom item which only costs 1000 gold. The downside is that it's a bind on account item. And apparently a "bind on account" is actually a "bind on server" item. You can only send it to characters on the same server. My warrior is on another server however so I'll just have to level him with a regular mount (transferring servers would be an alternative option I don't want to take). It does feel strange to have to use your regular mount after ten levels of flying. But I'm sure that when Cataclysm hits Blizzard will allow us to fly in Northrend and lower the XP needed to get to level 80 again.

Another huge improvement is the new Dungeon Finder. I didn't bother to do any of the 50-60 instances as I think they just take too much time. Instances like Blackrock Depths, Maraudon or Dire Maul were a lot of fun but you need to be able to play for at least two hours. All new instances can be completed in less than an hour so I did do some of the Outland instances. First I signed up as DPS. Ten minutes later I was in the Hellfire instance. And thirty minutes later I was ported back to the exact same place where I was questing!  I remember how this would be done a few years ago. You'd have to find people in the chatrooms of the major cities with a "LF2M BRD, one tank and one healer". When you finally get that healer after half an hour you'd all have to ride to the instance and when you were finally done you'd have to ride back to the city. It could easily take you an entire evening just to do one instance! These days? It's a blast to run these instances, even the older ones! I knew that the Dungeon Finder was great for level 80 players but it's even better for levelling as you don't even have to stop questing any more while waiting in the queue!

Since the end goal of levelling this character is to tank some heroics I also went ahead and bought the dual talent specialization. I levelled as fury to level 60 but I've read before that protection was actually a good levelling spec. I only intended to use protection in instances though. And for these instances it has been great. You could level these with a fury/arms spec but things get a lot easier with your protection talents. And after a few nervous minutes I actually enjoyed tanking. You can set your own pace and it's fun to try and let all mobs stick to you while still watching out if you're not pulling any adds. Best of all are the queue times. Today I tanked the first Nothrend instance. Queue time? One second.

But protection is also surprisingly good to use while levelling. I tried out playing half an hour as fury and then half an hour as protection. Result? My DPS went up from 400 to 500 while my defenses went up considerably. I did more damage and I took less! Add to that that the AoE is better than with a fury spec and that protection is just more fun to play as it's a more reactive gameplay. Every time you block, dodge or parry an attack you can cast revenge on an enemy which does huge damage. And every time you cast revenge or devastate you've got a chance to get a free shield slam. There's a nice cohesion between these spells and they are also very rage efficient compared to fury's whirlwind and bloodthirst abilities. It's a very interactive play-style which suited me fine. If all that isn't enough it's also the best way to single elite mobs. You've got so many cooldowns: shield wall, last stand, shield block... Combine all these and you can solo those two men quests without much problems. So while I intended to level as fury and instance as protection I just ended up using only protection. I'm sure that a fury warrior is better at grinding but only if he's walking around in epics.

Overall I'm very impressed with the changes Blizzard has brought to the tables. Especially the dungeon finder is a clever way of using WoWs huge player-base. There will always be someone in these millions of players who wants to run BRD now. The dungeon finder makes sure that you can all do it together. The dual specialization is also a nice bonus for hybrid classes. I can see how it's especially useful for healers as you can't level decently with a healer spec. A shadow priest or boomkin only have to switch their specs and they can use their DPS gear to heal! It's also nice to see how Blizzard added small improvements. Being able to fly in Outland is a tiny amount of work for Blizzards engineers but it's great way to make levelling a lot faster. And their in game quest database is a big help. It's no longer needed to visit for every quest, you can just see where you have to go on your map.  All this makes me curious what Blizzard will come up with in the future. These changes are showing that Blizzard isn't sitting still between two expansions and it's great to see that they keep innovating the game with each patch.

Thursday, April 22, 2010

Digital Ferraris

Tobold touched the subject of price differentiation this week. He notices that games are still priced so children can afford to buy them. Working people can spend more on their hobbies yet they only pay the same as children. More and more marketeers are giving us ways to spend some extra money on our gaming hobby.

Price differentiation can already be seen in the other entertainment industries. If you want to buy a book you have the choice between a paperback and a hardcover version. The hardcover version costs slightly more to make but costs about twice as much to the customer. To me it doesn't matter if it's a paperback version, I just want to read the book. But there's obviously a big market who doesn't mind paying more in order to make their bookshelves shinier. The movie industry also allows us to spend more money on the same items. Sitting three metres from my TV I can hardly see the difference between a Blu-Ray and a DVD disc but if you can spend a bit more you're free to spend it on the Blu-Ray disc. Just as with hardcovers a Blu-Ray isn't that much more expensive to press. Still, the price seems to be two to three times that of a DVD disc.

These days games are giving us more and more ways to spend a bit more. If you want to buy a copy of Starcraft 2 you have the option to buy the Deluxe Edition. For twice the price of the regular edition you'll get a ton of junk you'll use once and then never touch again. Your shelf will contain a CD with the games audio, a DVD with commentaries, a WoW pet and a dog tag. The flash drive with the original Starcraft looks like a fun extra but if you're spending one hundred dollars on a sequel I'm sure you have already played the original to death. Blizzard is also seeing ways to get some extra coins from their WoW players. For ten euros you can buy a mini pet and for twenty euros a sparkling pony. When I logged in today on my server I saw about four of these mounts in Ironforge. People actually buy these items en masse!

It's a great move by Blizzard. None of these items will give you a benefit while playing the actual game. You might have a pony mount but you can't outrun my mighty deadknight who's using a regular mount. As long as you're giving out fancy coloured vests, mini pets, audio CDs, movies,... it's all fine with me. I'll keep my money and every time I see someone with a special mount I'll see someone who has too much money to spend.

Other games are giving players who pay in-game benefits. We can see it with Bioware's games. Every single DLC item you can get is vastly superior to the items you gather while playing. The Blood Dragon Armor? The chest-piece lasted me from the minute I got it to the end of the game. Then they also give you the best weapon in the game forged from a comet that only lands when you buy the DLC. If you buy the game from certain retailers you'll also get a best-in-slot ring or necklace. In the end your character will be wearing nothing but DLC items. Take off those items and you're completely naked. I feel like this DLC is actually making the game less fun. Getting new and better gear is a big part of any RPG and if you're just going to give us the gear at level one that leaves out an aspect of the game.

As should be clear I greatly prefer to give vanity items to players who want to pay more. It's the digital equivalent of having a Ferrari. Someone with that fast car won't get any faster to his work than I will. They still have to live by the same rules/laws. But even if I don't like Biowares way of giving extra items I can still live with it. It becomes worse when you're giving out items in PvP games and that's where I draw the line. Imagine if you can buy a super tank in an RTS for real money which will just roll over your enemies. It might be fun for a while but it would be horrible for everyone else and your fun would soon fade away. As such I don't like micro transactions either. I don't want to see swords I can buy at level 1 which will last me to the end game. I don't want to buy your potions which will give me double XP. And I especially don't want to buy potions which make my character stronger. Everyone should need to put in as much effort in the game as anyone else.

It should be clear that Price Differentiation is here to stay, there's just too much money to be made from it. Since we can't change that I hope that Blizzard makes a ton of money from them so that they can set the example for their fellow companies. As long as other players are willing to spend twenty Euro on a pony I won't have to spend any money myself.

Monday, April 12, 2010

Seperating the men from the boys

Returning from a long WoW break always brings some novelties. I can now buy a flying mount for my level 60 warrior!  My warrior gets Shield Slam for free! And everywhere I look I see "Need one member for instance X, minimum gearscore 2800, link achievement". It seems like everyone has been brought back to a single number. The e-peen meter promised by Blizzard two weeks ago doesn't seem so funny any more.

Out of curiosity I checked the gearscore meter of my stabled Death Knight. She ran Naxxramas until she had everything she needed. Yet I saw people looking for members for their Naxx run with a gear score above mine. Why would someone who doesn't need a single item from Naxx anymore still want to run it? The people who do want to raid Naxx will be those who have gear from heroics, not people who are doing Icecrown Citadel.

Looking at the past, the gearscore does feel like a natural evolution. Everyone wants to run a fast instance without wipes. If you only instance with guildies you don't have a problem. But how do you know if that pug mage is any good? In the vanilla WoW days you would just try them out and add them as a friend if they were good. Soon enough you'd have a list of good players. With the introduction of achievements we found another way. Link the achievement to show us that you already finished the instance once! And the newest trick would be to link your gearscore.

All these tricks are of course flawed. How can you be sure that imba-geared mage really is any good? Did she just run a few instances auto following her friends? And maybe that guy who got the achievement just ran behind all the rest and leeched his victory. You can't be sure but your chances of success should go up.

Where will this evolution end? Shall we keep a huge hall of shame database like Tobold suggests? I can imagine a huge ranking system. Every time you walk in the fire or do pathetic DPS for your gear level your ranking goes down. Killing more and harder bosses will let you rise on the ladder. And for the very top of the chain you'd have to kill Arthas naked... with five men. Then again that top hundred player probably won't be interested in running your Naxx run.

Monday, April 5, 2010

Stanislav Lem - Solaris

Few people can sing "Non non, je ne regrette rien" on their deathbeds. Most will regret a few things they have or haven't done during their lifetimes. Kris, the protagonist of Solaris is no exception. When he was young he wanted to split with his girlfriend, Rheya. She threatened to kill herself if he moved out. He didn't believe she would do it and left. Sadly, she did do it. Ten years later he's sent to the Solaris station hovering above the planet Solaris to investigate what happened to it's crew. He's still having troubles with himself. I couldn't know that she would really do it, right? Should I have gone back and removed the pills she used to commit suicide? Questions we would all ask ourselves in a similar situation yet noone ever gets answers. Kris is lucky however as he gets a second chance. One day after his arrival at the station he meets Rheya.

He's well aware that she can not be real, she died after all. And some things point out that she's not a real person. If she moves too far from him she starts to panick and giving her a physical examination proves that she is indeed not a real human being. However, if she looks like a human, speaks like a human and talks likes a human, does it make any difference? Kris slowly gets more and more attached to her through the course of the book. Meanwhile the two other scientists in the stations are battling their own demons from the past. And they'd rather shoot their demons out of the airlock. Kris can not let this happen to his beloved Rheya.

Although there are three persons on the station Kris is mostly alone and only talks to his colleagues to share their ideas on the "visitors". There's a big sense of loneliness and I can't imagine a place that is lonelier than a space station on a foreign planet. Of course Kris is not really alone, he has Rheya. Seeing how he only has one person to connect to it's no wonder that he doesn't want to let her go.

Mixed in all this is the background story of the planet and the question of Rheya's origin. The planet seems to be one huge, intelligent creature which creates figures from its oceans. Is the planet reading their minds to create their most precious thoughts? And for what purpose? Kris wonders about this as much as we do.

The book feels like a mixture of great passages with mediocre ones. As long as the book deals with people it's a very good book. Kris' thoughts and discussions about his colleagues and of course Rheya read like a great psychological thriller. But on the other side there are also long passages that deal with the previous research that went into the planet, Solaris. These passages are too slow paced and I don't feel that they contribute to the overall story. Overall however, Solaris is an interesting search into our own minds.

Thursday, March 25, 2010

Childhood's End - Arthur C. Clarke

In the future we'll work less and less thanks to automation which will leave us more and more time for entertainment. Most of the routine jobs will be done by machines which leaves us to do the thinking. Thanks to the machines we'll have more time to sport and we'll manage to watch three hours of TV a day. Factories will produce enough goods so that the basic necessities of life are cheap. We'll all be able to travel to any other place in the world in less than one day. It's the golden age of mankind and also the start of our childhood as we spend more and more time playing and watching games.

Arthur C. Clarke's vision from 1953 seems prophetic today. Sadly, we now watch an average of four hours of TV a day while most people don't do any sport at all. And not everyone is at our western level of prosperity. Most people can hardly pay their rent.

In Clarke's book this golden age of mankind is delivered by a species called the Overlords. One day they came and they put us at a great level of prosperity. Of course, there's always a catch. The Overlords are in control of our world and can everything they want thanks to their superior technology. The big question is of course: why are they helping us? The responses to the Overlords are mixed, they did provide us everything we need... except for freedom. Besides that there's also a great reduction in our science and art. What's the use in searching for anti-gravity devices when the Overlords have already invented it? I personally find this hard to believe, I'd imagine that this would just cause the opposite effect. If they can build it, it proves that physics allows us to do it so we can build it too! But in times where the majority of people sport and watch TV most of the time I'm not surprised to see that there's not much time left to do research.

The book follows multiple characters through the ages. It starts directly after the alien landing with the UN governor who is our only contact with the Overlords. He's curious about the Overlords goals and sets out to find these out. The second part moves us fifty years in time and follows Rupert Boyce as he and his wife are in the golden age of mankind. Yet they're not entirely happy, Rupert wants to create art, not sit in front of a TV all day. They set off to join a small community who wants to restore our science and art progress to the times before the aliens interfered. The book concludes as mankind meets its final destiny.

Reading the first part I was enjoying a great book. Sadly, the book starts to fall towards the end. Clarke excuses himself in the foreword for his use of paranormal activities which seemed acceptable at the times. It's never a good sign if an author apologizes for his book. And it's hard to believe that an alien species having superior intelligence would be interested in it. Rupert Boyce himself is convinced that no scientist should believe in it and I fully agree with him. Mankinds destination is also a tough pill to swallow. We all accept our faith without a fight? Seriously?

Maybe we have to see the book in own time. The paranormal might have been more acceptable back then. The link to colonialism also isn't far off. The British were invading the entire world bringing peace and their 'superior' lifestyle through the use of their technology and military power. Is it better to impose your culture on others providing them a better life at the cost of their freedom? The book doesn't answer it but it's giving us food for thought.

Sunday, March 21, 2010

Dragon Age: The Failure

Exciting! The new Dragon Age expansion has arrived. So I quickly went ahead and clicked install. Half a minute later I'm sitting before an "Installation Failure" screen. Five attempts later the game still isn't installed. Luckily there's Google. Apparently the game doesn't properly install on Vista Ultimate 64 bit. There's a quick fix: install it using the Windows 2000 compatibility mode. Five minutes later the game is installed. How many people will return their games to the store because it doesn't work? It's an unacceptable bug.

After installing Mass Effect 2 I spent two hours in vain trying to find my old save game. I didn't have any luck and used a pre-made character from another player. But I felt bad about loosing my character. I made sure I wouldn't have the same problem with Dragon Age. I left the game installed after finishing it because the expansion was just around the corner. And indeed, the old save-game loads flawlessly. There's just one problem, my character is completely naked except for her gloves (yes, it gives me a déjà vu)...

When I started the new campaign I immediately noticed that my character is naked. Her companion next to her is dressed in what looks like epic gear. It's a complete immersion breaker to see that she's having a conversation like nothing is wrong. Soon I'm off to my first fight. Unarmed! My sword & shield? Gone. My armor, hat, boots, rings, necklace,...? Gone. I'm a warrior fighting with a bow. So once again we google the problem. And I quickly find out the cause: none of the DLC is transferred.

Bioware makes sure that people want to obtain their DLC. They give out free Blood Dragon armor of which I used the chest until the end of the game. The Starfall sword & my warden shield are both the best items in their categories that I found in the game. And they're all gone. It makes no sense to punish those who buy DLC by deleting all their items.You give them the best gear in the game only to take it away.

I hope that Dragon Age: The Awakening will still amaze me but it has one horrible start.

Monday, March 15, 2010

Ubik - Philip K. Dick

Ubik - Ubiquitous - Everywhere

Joe Chip works as a technician for a "prudence company". The company employs anti-psych people. One such talent might be the ability to block a telepathic. If you're sceptic about paranormal talents you're not the only one. At least one of the company's customers doubts their claims. Do they really do something or are they just drinking up our coffee while burning a whole in my pocket? But he's rather safe than sorry and just coughs up the money.

The book starts when the company receives a big order in times of crises. Safety bells should ring in their heads but they go ahead anyway. Arriving at the scene an explosion happens. Apparently their boss Runciter is killed. They immediately go off and bring their boss to the mortuary where he can be kept in a state of half life for a few more years. In half life he can still be asked some questions once every few years.

In a lot of books this prologue would be the offset for an action packed novel. Psychs vs non psychs, the fight! But not in this book. Instead everything gets fuzzier and fuzzier. As the book moves along their environment starts to change. Their money turns into toy money with Runciters face on. Their environment slowly degrades to the thirties. And they start seeing Ubik advertisements everywhere. Ubik promises them to restore their life and bring them back their old lives, they just have to get a bottle. How do you explain all this? Every time Joe gets one step closer to an answer something happens that puts us back two steps.

What's real? It's a concept that we can see in more of Dicks novels. Do androids dream of electric sheep (filmed as Blade Runner) is probably the most famous example. There an android hunter has to figure out who's an android and who's not, who's "real" and who's not. And the less obvious question remains unanswered, is he an android himself? How can we be sure what's real and not except through our senses? And in the end, does it matter what's real? We've only got the here and now and we have to make the best of it. Even if we all took the blue pill.

Saturday, February 27, 2010

Now available in Euros!

My favourite PC magazine was happy to see that Direct2Drive now offers their games in euros! My first thought was "right, now they can ask double the price to us Europeans".  I wish it was true, we pay four times the price (in the bargain bucket for €20 vs £5):

Great way to advertise your new website!

Thursday, February 18, 2010

Rapidly Trashed Town

Rockpapershotgun asked an interesting question last week: do you play RTS games online? The online part of RTS games is often the most important part from a developers side. Quite a few games only offer multiplayer, they can often be played singleplayer but it's really just multiplayer with bots. Demigod is a nice example. Yet only 23% of all gamers even tried to play online. A lot of people seemed to be surprised by these numbers but it didn't really surprised me. Personally, I only played a game or three of Demigod online and then went back to playing against bots.

Once upon a time things were different. Ten years ago I played nothing but Age of Empires 2 online for a year. It was great fun to match your own strategies with your opponents. I never got to be a good player but I did get better. Since then I haven't played that many online games. A game of shooty fun like Team Fortress 2 or Return to Castle Wolfenstein comes along now and then and keeps me playing online for a few months. And of course I played way too much WoW, I must have played that game for four years straight. But as for non mmorpgs I usually stick to single player games.

RTS games are especially hard to get into. It will easily take you months to be a competitive player. It's also a completely different experience than the single player game. You have to be way more aggressive. My usual singleplayer playstyle in these games is to build up an army while protecting my base and suddenly send them all in one big wave. That just doesn't work in multiplayer. The first few games that you play will without doubt end in being defeated humiliatingly. Most players will stop playing after these few games, only a few will persist.

And of course being good at starcraft does not mean that you will be good at age of kings. While being good at Quake 3 will make you decent in Unreal Tournament. And even if you suck a lot at a game like Unreal Tournament at least you'll get a few frags at the end of the run. You might be at the bottom of the list but you've killed someone, the end score might be 10-2. The RTS games will just show your score as 5-0.

These games require a serious time investment. Today I'd rather just start a game of TF2 for some quick fun. If you have played any shooter in the last ten years you can go ahead and have a few frags. TF2 is a prototype of a game that's easy to get into and hard to master.

That doesn't mean that I won't play any RTS games online anymore. When Starcraft 2 hits the shelves I'll go and join a few rounds online. And I'll probably get my ass kicked so badly that I'll just stick to playing against the computer opponents again. I'd also love to see more defense oriented games. Tower building games or turtle games such as Stronghold could get me to play them online. It's a niche market which has quite some potential. Whatever the niche, it would be great if a top game like Age of Kings gets me hooked for a few days. We can only hope.

Wednesday, February 10, 2010

A game a decade

It's only been a month since I finished Dragon Age. I've still got some DLC left to play but currently I'm first playing through Mass Effect 2. What a luxury problem! Two instant classic games were released by Bioware less than two months apart. And now Bioware announces that they will release Dragon Age 2 by march next year. All this while developing the Dragon Age expansion planned for march this year and creating more DLC for Dragon Age and Mass Effect 2. They're doing all this while creating the next big mmorpg, SW:TOR! The quick expansion pack release for Dragon Age already had me worried. How can they create all this in such a short time frame?  We know that the EA programmers all work 72 hours a week but even then, how do they pull this off?

Let's take a look at Biowares archive:

It seems like Bioware is creating games at an increasingly faster rate while their quality is even improving. I liked both Mass Effect and Jade Empire but they weren't on the same level as SW: KOTOR. I personally didn't like them as much and their metacritic scores are in the 80th percentile. Both Dragon Age and Mass Effect 2 have a 90+ score and I love both games.

Reading all this I couldn't help but think about Blizzard. They've been my favourite developer for a long time now. I still remember playing starcraft, diablo 2 and warcraft 3 for the first time. And one day they created WoW. I must have spent more hours in WoW than in all the other games I ever played combined. If I were to create a top 25 of my favorite games it would probably contain four Blizzard games. Sadly, it's been a long time since I had the joy of playing Warcraft for the first time:
Blizzards last game, WoW was released five years ago! They have been creating nothing but creating expansions for WoW since 2004. Blizzards philosophy has always been "done when it's done" so it's no wonder that Starcraft 2 got pushed back to Q2 of this year. I wouldn't be surprised if they pushed it back again. Of course, it's hard to argue with success. Which developer wouldn't wish they spent a decade creating WoW? It's clear however that even Blizzard wants to create more games at a faster rate. Splitting up Starcraft 2 in episodes should have done the trick. But they still take as long to create one episode as most developers take to create one new game. Let's hope that the two sequels in the trilogy will be created faster.

Valve already tried to use episodic gaming for Half Life 2. The episodes would make sure that their development time went down at the cost of games with a smaller duration. It's a great idea but we're still waiting for episode 3 two years after the second instalment. At the other end Valve also released Left 4 Dead 2 this year. Releasing a sequel a year after the original caused quite some outrage but once people got to play the game it all calmed down.

In the end it doesn't really matter how long it took you to develop a game. Create a great game and we'll enjoy playing it. But I sure wish that Blizzard had some of the stuff that the Bioware developers are taking.

Wednesday, January 27, 2010

A new decade, new DRM

Activation limits for games caused a lot of negative feedback from the gamer community. People felt that their games went from an ownership model to a more limited, renting model. The obvious thing to do for a publisher after all this backlash  would be to ease their DRM measures. So what does Ubisoft decide to do? Introduce a new, draconian DRM scheme of course!

So, what does their new baby do? Each Ubisoft game will regularly connect to one of their back-end servers. In other words, you have to be on-line all the time, even when playing a single player game. They're trying to put it in a nice spotlight: you don't need your CD in the drive any more! And your game saves are stored on their servers! A very useful feature promised by Valve years ago but it doesn't change the fact that you have to be on-line all the time. At least with Valves Steam I still have the option to use my off-line mode

This does mean that you won't be able to play on your laptop. Want to play half an hour on the train or on the plane? Bad luck. What if you have a shabby wifi connection that sometimes fails like I have? Well, your game will pause. If I would be in the middle of an exciting game and suddenly I'd get the "please wait while we try to connect to the internet" message I'd  get seriously pissed.

But above all, what’s the use? The first game with this protection scheme will be protected for a few days or weeks. Then a handful of determined hackers will crack it. Your games will be saved to your local disc and you’ll never have to use the Internet. From one point of view the hacker gets a better version then the customer (idem dito with the x activation limits, a pirated version doesn’t have those and thus is better). All this does is forcing people to download the crack if they want to play on the train. Do you really want customers to go look for cracks and hacks? Maybe next time they’ll just download the full game instead of just the crack.

So I'm sure that it will fail as an anti-piracy measure just like all previous attempts (minus subscription based games like mmorpgs) did. What is it good for? It's another way to reduce the second hand market which the publishers hate so much. There are very few second hand PC sellers here in Europe but the market is bigger in the USA. It's another step away from the ownership model:

Can I resell my game?
Not at this time.

Can I resell my game along with my Ubisoft account?
Your Ubisoft account features your personal data and cannot be given or sold to anyone.

Another measure that will punish those players who are still willing to pay for a game while it won't affect a single pirates copy. It's about time that publishers understand that they should convince people to buy their games by offering better content then the pirate versions. Not like it is now: the pirated copy plus a disk full of DRM. For on-line games you can offer big and fast servers. For single player gamers there are also options. Online achievements, online save games or profiles are great to prevent loosing all your data in a PC crash and sure provide a bonus compared to pirated versions. You can also add some free DLC to your game. It's a lot easier to get the DLC when it asks you at start up then having to search for torrents every time a small DLC package is available. But make sure that all these extras are optional. At least that way your bought version will offer something more than a pirated copy. Forcing people to pay for something that they can get better for free makes no sense at all.

Sunday, January 24, 2010

Rent a byte

On-line multimedia distribution is growing at a steady pace. Amazon is renting out books for its Kindle device. Game distributors such as Steam are generating more and more income. At the other side of the ocean movie providers like Netflix and Hulu are popular. And today there are two big announcements. Youtube will offer full movies for rent. And today Greenmangaming wants to offer second hand games... digital games.

An interesting idea but I can't see how they will manage to pull it off. Publishers seem to have put second hand sales into the same category as piracy. DRM schemes such as the infamous "three installs and you're out" are there to stop second hand sales. Stopping pirates will be the official version but it doesn't stop a single pirate as they never even see those installation limits. A sad case where the pirate is better of then the buyer. From a publishers side it's simple. If they sell their game for a third of the price to you they still get a third of their money. If you buy it for a third of the price in a second hand store then they will get nothing. Greenman promises to deliver a part of the profits to the publishers. But will it be enough?

Of course, renting out media only works through DRM. iTunes has its DRM on mp3s, Amazon on its books and Youtube on its movies. Services without DRM such as are out of the picture. If you paid for the game, you can download it and install it ad infinitum. Selling a game to greenman should stop making it working for the seller. And that's just not possible without DRM.

Then there are the bargain deals. Steam is now running a “Buy Men of War and Men of War: Red Tide” for about 10 euros. Men of war is normally up for 12 euros and the expansion for 20 euros. If you put the resell value to respectively 6 and  10 euros then you have a problem. I could buy both games for cheap and resell them after the bargain period to make a profit. Forbid bargain deals to be sold?

The only way I can see this work if they offer their own Steam-like digital distribution  centre. You could buy their games and resell them for a third of the price. The second hand game could then be sold in their store for two thirds of the price. It's a system that might work. But which publishers are going to want to sell the game for less profit then a full version?

What I find most interesting about all this is however that we're not really talking about second hand items. If I buy something in a second hand shop then its quality will have deteriorated. A book will have some ripples in it, a game will have scratches and a car will have less kilometres left in it than a new car. We're OK with that because the price is lower. Those bytes you downloaded from Steam? They're still as good as the original. Buying the original gives zero benefit from buying a second hand copy. Buying a game "second hand" in this case will always be better then getting it new as you get the same product for less money. So the only value difference is in what people give them. And that's usually just wanting the newest, shiniest games. We might end up with a hierarchy of gamers. Those who really want to play a game buy it first. Then those who can wait a bit buy it second hand two weeks after the release. But is this really different from the current system? Now they just ask full price in pre-order and drop your price in a bargain weekend a few weeks later.

Selling second hand games is an interesting idea and I'm curious how they will pull it off. It could be great to offer games to people who have some patience. But I doubt that it will be ever be more than a platform to sell B grade games. The future will tell us.

Sunday, January 17, 2010

Pay now or pay even more later

This week I got this e-mail from Funcom:

Character Deletion Alert

Thank you for playing Age of Conan.

As part of our maintenance your account is now flagged to have your characters below level 20 deleted as part of maintenance. Please re-activate your account now to ensure that your characters progress and names stay intact.

After seeing last weeks phishing mail I had to take a look at the source of the e-mail as I suspected that this was just another scam. After all, why would any company want to destroy their customers property? But no, it's not a scam, the e-mail does come from Funcom.

Two years ago, I've bought Age of Conan as a pre-order. And I stopped playing after only a few days as it quickly became clear to me that this game wasn't my thing. Having my ass kicked time after time by two mobs of my own level got frustrating really fast. Frustrating enough to go play something else. Interestingly, when I shared this experience months after my Conan adventures with my WoW guild mates the response I got was "Did you play a Bear Shaman"? Maybe I just took the wrong class. I remember having some difficulties in WoW with my low level warrior. Whatever causes those problems, it's small stuff like this that is enough to remove the fun part in Funcom. It's a shame as I really do like the Conan franchise. Robert E. Howard made an excellent fantasy setting with his Conan books. Those books still offer good reading decades after they've been written. Howards universe is more mature then Tolkiens, it's refreshing to see an mmorpg which doesn't see the world through 12+ goggles.

Since I didn't play this game for a long time deleting all my low level  characters won't change much for me. None of my characters were above level 20. It did make me think about my WoW characters though. What if they decided to delete all my lowbies if I stopped playing for a year between expansions? I'd be loosing my bank alt which stores all my gold! They'd force me to either pay €15 to reactivate my account for a month and send all my items to my higher level characters or loose the equivalent of months of playtime. That would piss me of in a major way. In the end I'd cough up the €15 to save my time investment. They'd gain a few euros at the cost of pissing of their customer base and harming their brand name.

Their given reason for doing this is a joke. "Maintenance"? You mean your maintenance will be so specific that it won't touch any high level characters? Give me a break. Other companies manage to keep your characters for over a decade. All it costs them is a few bytes on a server. It's obvious that this is a way to force some players to return to the game and fill the publishers pockets.

I can only imagine if you descubsribed from Funcoms maillist or if that e-mail lands in your spam mail. You reactivate your account when the next expansion hits and you're hoping to pick up the game where you left it. Only to enter a game where all your belongings have been destroyed. It might be enough to stop playing all together. Destroying players characters will destroy their reasons to come back. If my high level WoW characters were to be deleted before the next expansion hits the shelves there's a big chance I'd stop playing WoW. Relevelling my characters from scratch again before I can do the new content isn't  appealing. Deleting characters is preventing your customers from ever coming back.

I do wonder if the money Funcom makes by this action will be worth the bad reputation they've built up with it. Personally, I now think less of Funcom. And no, giving me seven free days when I reactivate my account won't be enough to restore your reputation.

Saturday, January 9, 2010

Please give us your WoW account

This week I found this in my mailbox:

At first glance it looks like a genuine e-mail from Blizzard, it even passed Hotmails spam filter. But I quickly remembered that I didn't get this kind of e-mail when someone changed my password and actually hacked my account two months ago.

Giving this message a closer look quickly gives more hints to show us that it's a fake:
  • "you Login verify your password" - Bad English in an automatically generated mail? No professional company would send this mail let alone one based in the United States;
  • "If you are unable to successfully verify your password . using the automated system" - That's not even a proper sentence.
  • As every WoW player should know, Blizzard will never ask you to enter your password.
  • Any login site should have the https protocol.
  • The e-mails source code shows that the e-mail comes from the IP This links to, not to like their authentic e-mails do.
After seeing all this it's clear that this mail is an obvious forgery. But in the name of investigation I clicked on it anyway and both FIrefox and Internet Explorer tag it as a phishing website. Ignoring the phishing message and continuing to the site shows the regular WoW login website. Of course with the difference that your user name and password will also be forwarded to someone else...

Luckily this phishing attempt was poorly done. But I can imagine that quite a few people could be fooled by a more professionally looking e-mail. If one in a thousand falls into this trap and you send a million mails then you've got quite a few accounts. Add to this brute force dictionary attacks or keyloggers and I'm sure every WoW player knows someone who has seen his account hacked.

It's no wonder that Blizzard is considering to make their authenticator mandatory. Once everyone has one the amount of hacked accounts should be greatly diminished. The main reason to do this is probably to reduce operating costs. Having to hire dozens of people that do nothing all day but restoring accounts isn't a fun way to spend your money. And being in the news with "Thousands of WoW accounts hacked" won't really improve your company's image either.

Blizzard also reduced my major problem with the authenticator: the costs. Two months ago they asked €8 posting costs for an item they sold at €6. Nowadays they're asking $6.650 or €6.99. Yes, we Europeans are still being ripped of as we'll pay half more than our American fellow gamers. But it's a move in the right direction. I even wonder if it wouldn't be cheaper for Blizzard to just give everyone an authenticator for free. Wouldn't it be cheaper then having to deal with thousands of hacked accounts?

So the next step I predict will be to give free authenticators with Cataclysm or Starcraft 2. At which point it will probably be mandatory for all these games. Sad that we need one but it seems to be a necessary evil.

Wednesday, January 6, 2010

DLC - Directly Lost Cash?

The prices of games have been more or less steady the last decade. Now and then a game such as Call of Duty, Modern Warfare 2 comes along and causes a fuzz by raising the price but overall prices don't change much. The development costs of games keep on going though while the player numbers don't increase by that much. So publishers have to keep on trying to find more ways to get the money from our pockets without raising the retail prices of their games. DLC seems to be the newest card they've pulled out of their bags and it's quickly gaining more and more popularity.

At it's base, it's a nice idea. Instead of spending four years creating one big hit-or-miss blockbuster you can spend some time to create smaller pieces of content. If you can add a few hours of gameplay for $5 everyone will be happy. The customers will have a reason to keep on playing your game and the waiting time between content will be reduced. For the publishers, it's pure profit, there are no retailers who grab at your money with their filthy paws. One week after its launch Dragon Age already lured in a million dollars in cash from its DLC alone so there's some big profit in it. And Bioware plans to keep releasing new DLC for years to come.

Despite all of its potential DLC still forms a controversial topic these days. I suspect that it's partially because we, pc gamers, have been spoiled by developers such as Valve or Blizzard. Blizzard is still releasing free patches and the occasional map for starcraft ten years after its launch. And Valve are the masters of free content. If I take a look at how Team Fortress 2 looked when I bought it and how it looks now there's a huge difference. Every few months they'll release a free content patch with new maps, new items and give me a reason to install it again. When we're used to that kind of free, dedicated support then why would we want to pay for some horse armor?

Recently even Blizzard has been adding DLC to their games. Pandaran monks and little Kelthuzads are now available from their pet store... at a cost of $10 each. I find this price point to be very high for an item which has no use but I'm sure that these two items will have make Blizzard a few hundred thousand dollars. Luckily, so far all the content you can buy in WoW have been luxury items. You can pay to transfer your server, buy a minipet or even change your race but none of this will make you better at WoW. If they'd ever go so far as to sell epic weapons or armor I'd never look at my account again.

On the other side we have Bioware which has been really pushing DLC with their latest release. They added Shale, a companion which you can only get with hard cash (he is free the first time you play). Shale is a companion which is interweaved through the entire game. This seems to be a case where they programmed it and later decided to pull it out of the game and ask money for it. Asking money for something that should be in the original game is unethical. They do this again by adding a chest for your items in the second DLC package. A chest for your stuff is a must have in an RPG with a limited inventory, I would have cursed if I didn't have one. It was already hell to play with just my inventory plus the chest they added later on.

Then they added an NPC in your camp (see screenshot) which would link you to their site! One minute you're talking to him and expecting to get a quest. The next minute your suspense of disbelief is completely shattered as you get the option to visit the Bioware site and spend some of your money! If you really must promote your items then show me a banner in a game launcher but please don't ever promote your DLC in game again.

And finally they also added the Dragon Armor. Sure it's fun to get a powerful item but this item was so powerful that I didn't replace it during the entire game. RPGs are about pimping your characters, finding a sword with one more +awesomeness! If you're just throwing us an über item at the start of the game you're ruining that part of the game.

Bioware has now announced their next expansion for Dragon Age. It's going to cost $40 and it will be released four months after the original game was released. Four months to finish a full blown expansion? Forgive me for thinking that this expansion might just be a big, overpriced DLC package. Are the borders between DLC and expansions beginning to fade? We'll see in a few months.

Like it or not, DLC is here to stay. As long as they're adding new, exciting content at a reasonable price it can strengthen a game. And if we see a minipet priced for $10 we can just decide to pass it. After all, voting with our wallets is the one right publishers can't take away from us.

Monday, January 4, 2010

Mirrors Edge - Mirror, mirror on the wall, who's the fastest of them all?

In the near future all of our networks are monitored by a totalitarian government. I'd personally start encrypting all my traffic with 512 bit protocols. Others might start using carrier pigeons. Apparently the men of the future opt to use runners to distribute information. Probably because DICE didn't feel like making pigeon game. 

You are playing Faith, a runner who is discovering the secrets of the regime and is getting high on their Top Ten most wanted list. She'll run from the cops, save her sister, run even more and of course, save the world. The story is told with nicely animated cutscenes but it failed however to keep me really interested. It all felt like something that's just there to sew all the levels together.

The designers opted to choose for a first person experience. This is a bold decision as most platform games are played in third person (think Prince of Persia, Tomb Raider). Melee fighting is also difficult to pull of in first person.  It took me a while to figure out how to beat the cops which all have guns while you have none. The best way to do it is to quickly run to an opponent. Then they will try to knock you down with their weapon. While they do this there is a small time frame during which their weapon will turn red and you can disarm them. This happens with a nice animation and you got yourself a nice gun! From there on it plays pretty much like a regular shooter. Hide behind cover, shoot someone, take their gun and take cover again. Walking around with a heavy weapon seriously limits your speed however. It's also impossible to do most of the acrobatics while carrying a gun and the average gun only has a few bullets. It's clear that the fighting is seen as an intermezzo between running sessions. From time to time you'll see a few soldiers, get rid of them, drop your weapon and continue running.

The bulk of the game comes from the acrobatics you can pull of. Faith has a diverse gamma of stunts. She can climb, roll, do wall jumps,... She also has to build up her momentum. If you start running you'll notice that you run faster and faster. This is needed to pull of some of the more difficult jumps. The levels are divided in outside levels on rooftops and in inside levels. Outside you'll be jumping from building to building, hang on rain pipes and jump from cranes. Inside you'll have to get from room to room passing small corridors. The level design in this game is really standing out. You always know where you have to go and you'll often have to think a few minutes on how you can get there. I've never been stuck in this game for longer than fifteen minutes. At some times it wasn't immediately clear to me what I was supposed to do but I always figured it out. What if I try to walk up the wall and then do a sideway jump? The player is also visually aided by the use of the color red. If you need to use a ladder, it will get red. Once you're down the ladder it will turn gray again. It's a clever system which avoids backtracking, you won't accidentally use those stairs again. And if you feel up to it you can turn of the hint system.

The other thing that stands out in this game are the graphics. Not in a "let's throw as many polygons at the screen as we can" way but in its artistic design. The game uses a smart coloring scheme. Most of the world is colored with white, blue and green. The red color is kept for the hint system. It all looks very slick.

Overall I had fun playing this game. It won't make my list of favorite games of the year but it was well worth the three euros I paid for it. It's a game that is showing potential but still has a few rough edges to work out. The story could use some polish and the fighting can be improved. I'm sure this will be done in Mirrors Edge 2.

It's great to see that EA dares to start a new franchise from time to time. Especially when it's basically a new genre such as Mirrors Edge. Creating another expansion for the Sims or FIFA 2010is a failsafe way to create some extra cash. This game is great for everyone who wants to try out something entirely new. And if you want to see more refreshing games it's well worth buying this one.