Completely Twisted

November 6th, 2012 2 comments

League of Legends has come to the end of its second season, with the Taipei Assassins taking home the mantle of World Champions. With this unexpected victory now behind them, Riot looks to the future of the professional scene and season 3, and begin to lay down their vision in the rework of LoL’s redheaded stepchild of a map, Twisted Treeline.

In a statement regarding the transition period between seasons, Marc Merrill (president of Riot) said that the remake of the map was one element they were introducing to change the nature of the game. Even though Season 2 had seen a lot of adjustments, including the Honor Initiative, Spectator Mode, Champion Remakes, and graphical fixes, these changes were merely the polishing of a game that was already very successful, by professional gaming standards. “But we’re still just getting started. In fact, we’re always striving to improve the game over time. With Season Three on the horizon, expect League of Legends to continue to evolve.”

If the rework of Twisted Treeline proves to be the standard by which Riot moves forward, I am very excited to see what comes next. In its previous incarnation, Twisted Treeline was a muddled mess of a map, too big to be comfortable for 3v3s, but too small for anything else. Its buffs were awkwardly placed, the layout of the jungle was snarled and incoherent, and when these elements were combined with exceedingly narrow lanes, the map gave too much power to teams with heavy control or pull elements like Blitzcrank/Nautilus/Ahri. It was, simply put, frustrating.

Twisted Treeline’s remake was released soon before Elise stepped onto the Field of Champions, and just in time for Halloween. While the various skins and themes of the holiday definitely influence the map, the balance that was once lacking from the Treeline is now closer to being realized. No longer does the TT feel like a sprawling tangled snare, but instead, a more streamlined and action oriented map, where two teams rest for control over altars, and the middle ground. The Elder Lizard and the Dragon are gone, their buffs switched around into two altars and one neutral mob.

If you’re looking for a significant short term buff (and you’re strong enough) head over to Vilemaw, the new boss creep of the map. A giant spider who may have eaten the last boss creep, Vilemaw is a significant threat, and a significant prize. He’ll give you the Crest of Crushing Wrath on his defeat, which may give your team that last rush needed to take the enemy’s Nexus. This isn’t too much different than Baron, and isn’t as interesting a change to the map as the altars are.

The altars are a great point of contention, one which doesn’t rely on a team fighting and getting weakened by a creep. Instead, the two altars are split on either sides of the jungle, one closer to either team. Control one altar, and receive a small gold on kill boost. Control both, and you get increases to your attack damage and your ability power. It’s a way to invest zones of control, and give something for the players to fight over other than towers and creeps. Control over the altars is governed by a small timer, and once you capture one, an altar cannot be recaptured for 90 seconds, making them both a valuable prize and something that isn’t game changing by itself. If your altar is captured, the enemy team gets a small benefit for a short, and then you get to try to reclaim it. It is only over the whole of the game that the bonuses have a decisive impact on your game: if you’ve held both altars for a more significant part of the match, then its buff will be felt in the end as you accrue more gold than your opponents.

The last significant change to TT is the addition of several items. Treeline has a host of new items meant only for it that were added because of the player count. In 5v5s, there’s more of an opportunity for everyone to do a bit of damage, and so the items tend to be a little weaker on the whole. With fewer players and the possibility of a really beefy team, the designed of the new TT felt that some heavily impacting items needed to be in the mix.

On the whole, the new Twisted Treeline is a fun, interesting place, and if we can see this sort of thought put into just a map, I’m looking forward to season 3 as it rolls out. When the designers listen to their players, you get a higher quality game, and though I don’t know what the future holds for League of Legends, I’m sure it’ll be a bright one.

See you on the Fields of Justice, Summoners.

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Hang that game on the wall. Next to the Picasso, dear.

February 20th, 2012 1 comment

I have long held that games are a new art form, but only very slowly gaining the acclaim that they are due. For too long, people have derided games as mere toys or diversions, unworthy of the status of being art. After all, since kids play these things, they can’t be legitimate works of art. They’re just things to keep us entertained for a little bit, and then they go away. But Psychonauts, if you’ll pardon the pun, has stuck itself in my brain, and will undoubtedly influence the tabletop games I run from here on out.

It’s been 7 years since the game was released, and I had always heard it was revolutionary, but no one could tell me why exactly. It was simply, “You have to play this,” from all corners of the internet. Then, Yahtzee came along with his review, and I was suddenly more intrigued. With all the attention on Double Fine because of their Kickstarter drive giving me the last push, I went on Steam and picked it up.

And I could not put it down. This is a game whose story is genuinely original and funny, a call to the days of old when humor meant more to a game than body count. It’s also profoundly moving. All of the characters are well detailed, because you have to help almost all of them with their psychological problems. There has to be literal depth there, as you go spelunking through their unconsciousnesses. If the characters don’t have story, then they don’t have problems for you to solve. Additionally, it ties in beautifully to the exploring element championed by Psychonauts; if you want to get more powerful, you have to achieve objectives within the “mindscapes” of the characters that involve uncovering their secrets and helping them with their (literal) mental baggage. As people hide their shame deep within their consciousness until it becomes a part of them, so too do the characters who you have to help. Secrets become things to search out and fight, or organize. Baggage becomes things to pick up and reunite. Every character has some secret, some shame, some hidden pain that you have to work out, or else you don’t progress. It is this depth that is truly refreshing in a game; I grew fond of every character, even the antagonist, though I have to say that the turning point for me was getting the achievement “I’m Sure She’s Over It”. I won’t spoil it for you, but she’s not. She’s just covering.

That’s what makes the game amazing. Its platforming blends into its story and back again. Because I took the time to explore, I found out a whole new level of depth to a major character. It changed my understanding of her interactions with everyone else in the story, and it is this level of seriousness and complexity which defines art.

When you can make a game go (ahem) levels deeper, and to change the way its players think, you cannot simply dismiss it as meaningless entertainment, devoid of any value other than wasting time. You have to give it more credit than that.

Buy Psychonauts. Play it, as it’s relatively short at 8-10 hours. Enjoy it.

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How Fine? Double Fine

February 11th, 2012 2 comments

Double Fine’s unprecedented success with its Kickstarter donation drive to produce a new game begs a question: Can this be a sustainable business model for the future of gaming? Before we tackle that weighty question, let’s start with some facts and observations, and wend our way from there.

For those of you who haven’t heard, Double Fine Productions, lead by Tim Schafer, decided that they wanted to start a new game. It is what they do, being a game production company after all, but still, they felt the itch. The being said, the problem with most independent developers (and Double Fine is one of the largest), is their inability to gain the financing necessary to produce their games. Many games that do get developed by indie teams are just labors of love, and any compensation for them comes at the end of the process, if it comes at all. Many actually just die on the operating table, and never see the light of day. Their producers are small 2-3 man teams, who need jobs to pay the bills. They can’t afford keep working all night in their garages, as they’ve got to get sleep at some point. The costs involved (the technology, the staff, the office space, and the energy requirements to name a few) in producing games like Call of Duty, Madden NFL, and Assassin’s Creed is the reason that Activision, EA, and Ubisoft exist at all.

So Tim decided he wanted to cut out the middle man. Enter Kickstarter. A website that accrues donations for creative projects, Tim decided to set up a drive there to see if he could get his game financed. He wanted $300,000 to fund it, and an extra $100,000 to film it.

He got that much in 8 hours. People didn’t stop. Currently, it’s at $1,521,422. For those of you busting out your calculators, that’s 3.7 times as much as he asked for. With 31 days left to go.

Unless something catastrophic happens, it’s easy to predict that this game will be a success. The talent is there, and so is the money. Gobs and gobs of money. But is this a sustainable business scheme for the future? That’s a little trickier to speculate on.

The buzz for this product may have really started when Notch tweeted “Let’s make this happen.” He was specifically talking about Psychonauts 2, but the internet noticed, and maybe Tim did too. It’s tough to say without interviewing him when exactly he got the idea to go to Kickstarter. It’s also tough to say if anyone else could have had the success in using Kickstarter that Tim Schafer has. He has the luxury of a great intro video, an impressive gaming resumé, and an amazing team. Though the games page on Kickstarter is full of projects that have been funded successfully, it’s tough to use that as a gauge to see the projects that have failed to be adequately funded, because they just don’t show up. However, there are plenty of games and other projects on Kickstarter that don’t have Tim Schafer behind them, and they get funded just fine.

But I think it’s the beginning of a new era, certainly. As with book publishing, game publishing is being… well not crowd sourced exactly, but definitely crowd financed. The major limiting factors for the creation for books and games have been money and avenues for distribution. But these walls are being torn down in this digital age. Distribution platforms such as Valve’s Steam, Amazon’s Kindle Store, and Apple’s iTunes, the bars for both the cost to produce these goods and the ability to spread them are being lowered substantially. Anyone with a computer can create something and spread it as they like. The real limiter then becomes, as it always should be, quality. The things that do well should be intrinsically more valuable than those that don’t. Because anyone can make anything, the good things will naturally rise to the top as more people examine, use, and play these games. The ones that are worth it will be talked about and shared, and the ones that aren’t will be forgotten.

As gamers, I think we should promote these trends for two reasons:

1. Encouraging the distribution of games increases their popularity be definition, giving us a broader and healthier community.

2. Having more options to pick from in terms of games gives us stronger games, and lets the medium develop as a true art form.

I realize that not everyone can afford to pitch in to the projects they would like to. Times are tough, and money’s always been tight for a lot of friends of mine. That being said, if you can’t contribute monetarily, please spread the word. These kinds of things need to be endorsed, for the good of both our hobby and community. And if you’ve got the time, and the inclination, then do so yourself. Get on Kickstarter, grab some friends, get out there, and make something. Do us all proud.

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The Revolution Will Be Livestreamed

February 5th, 2012 1 comment

Introduced in late October, SOPA (the “Stop Online Piracy Act”) was hailed as a reasonable, intelligent bill, carefully crafted to stop online piracy. This praise came from people who had absolutely no idea what they were talking about.

Piracy is a problem, but the way to deal with it probably isn’t more legislation, especially legislation as Orwellian as the SOPA bill was. This is not actually a philosophical argument, but one with practical examples. Authors, artists, and producers think that the best way to deal with piracy is treating it not as a crime but as a measure of acceptable loss. Other governments have thrown studies at the problem, and concluded that piracy may not impact the bottom line of artists in a meaningful way. If you’re more well known as a musician because your songs get shared around, your revenues actually tend to be higher.

So why does the American government believe that artists need to be protected thus? Several artists themselves have complained about the takedown of Megaupload, and the very fact that it happened suggests two things. First, that the real agenda is not the protection of artists or the integrity of their work, as the RIAA and the MPAA have claimed. Second, that legislation such as SOPA is in fact unecessary, as Megaupload was taken down despite the law being shelved. If the artists don’t want it, and the feds don’t need it, why are laws such as SOPA still being discussed?

SOPA may be shelved, but it’s being rexamined in several forms. The most prevalent one is a international agreement called ACTA, or the Anti-Counterfeiting Trade Agreement. Drafted principally by the United States, this abysmal excuse for a document proposes a wide variety of methods by which copyright holders may retain the integrity of their goods on the internet, methods such as criminal prosecution on people with no probable cause, and vastly overcosted civil trials where the defendants may owing wind up many times more than the market value of the goods pirated.

The fact seems to be that while the aim of these treaties and laws may be in the right spot, it’s like trying to hit a target with a nuke. I’ve seen Hiroshima and Nagasaki’s nuclear museums, so let me assure you, that is not hyperbole. The force of these pieces of legislation is such so as to break and destroy the system currently, and make sure that nothing grows again. The common user will be unable to even think of trying filesharing or BitTorrent, and just accept the methods presented to them as the only real, viable solutions.

And yet, that has never been how the internet’s worked. The internet, being a method of communication and information sharing perhaps at its purest form, relies on groundbreakers and pioneers. The people who built the internet, and who continue to shape it, are those people who can see beyond today, and beyond tomorrow. They are the ones who will innovate, and change, and revolutionize. And they will get around SOPA, PIPA, ACTA, and anything else like it. What these bills do is choke people who use the internet “casually”. I put that in quotes because the internet can do amazing things, and to suggest that things like sharing art or talking with your friend halfway across the world are casual is somewhat demeaning, but the point I’m trying to make is that this will do so much more harm to people who aren’t the culprits as to make me shudder.

So what can we do? Even though SOPA induced a massive backlash, it still enjoyed debate for far too long. Similarly, Lamar Smith is not done with his internet legislation, and ACTA continues to fly relatively under the radar. It seems that every time the internet gains some ground, we are once again under sttack by forces that would cripple or destroy it.

Above all, we must keep fighting. If this is a battle, and we are encountering fatigue, then we should rest, and ask our brothers to watch our posts for a while we can recuperate. And then, we have to pick up our arms again. We have to spread the world that our liberities are under attack, and be ready to guard them. We have to tell our friends that they need to once again summon up their strength and go to the line, to defend the internet from people who have no idea how it works. We have to call our Congresspeople and our Representatives, and tell them, in one clear voice, “No.”

And we do this until we win.

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Under The Bridge

January 11th, 2012 2 comments

I have been playing a lot of League of Legends lately. Alliteration aside, I think it’s a solid game that’s let me reconnect with some friends back at home while I’m on winter break here in Korea. I won’t get to play quite as much with them once school starts, but I’ve deeply enjoyed my time so far. Except for one, small, tiny problem.


They’re becoming a more ubiquitous sort of problem in video game culture in general, and LoL and other DOTA clones are well known for the amount of trolling that goes on in the game. “Fucking retards”, “My team has downs”, “Oh God, it would be better if you just went AFK.” Actually, I got told that in a game I played just tonight. “Fizz, ur useless. just afk.” And I’ll admit, it hurt. I mean, it always does. That’s the point, and also the problem. A certain amount of teasing and ribbing is in line with competition of any kind. There’s a natural, primal instinct to gloat, to roar in triumph. I think it’s part of our ancestry, actually. To be able to cry out, to shout that you had achieved something gave you recognition, gave you status. If you could do what you said you could do, then you wanted to be known for that. In competitions that’s primarily “Beat the other guy”, and we celebrate it even today when we ask sports stars and athletes what they think of their performance in the game today, or how they trained to be so God Damned Fast.

But in games online, this sort of gloating is tainted and transformed by the medium that the sport takes place in. Before there were online games, there were online forums. Chat rooms, BBSes, newsgroups, where people could come together under the veil of anonymity and discuss their opinions. But given that safety net, people began to let their darker sides out. The more vindictive, angry, violent, and frankly cruel sides. We gave a name to these shadows of the Internet, who delight in getting a rise out of people.

We called them trolls.

For a long time, the advice was “Don’t feed the trolls”, and it was relatively sound. If you ignore them, then you beat them. You don’t give them what you want. If you can just hold your head, and not submit to their taunts and jeers, their threats and insults, then you can continue on this great big thing we call the Web, undisturbed. Maybe a little bloody, but unbowed.

Video games didn’t have this much of a problem in the early days, because they were often against a computer opponent. But games, particularly online games, require a certain amount of commitment to your teammates. Cordial behavior, teamwork, respect, and the same goal in mind. As the games we designed grew more and more social, then the inherent problem of anonymous assholes who get their jollies off by making other people feel bad bled into this new frontier. Suddenly, we had problems trusting our own teammates. We thought that we could at least count them on being civil, but “gg noobs” and “just uninstall the game fagtard” became part of our vocabulary.

Sadly, I don’t think there’s any one solution that can ever beat out trolling. Which is not to say that we should give up, and just wash our hands of these games. It simply means that we must be ready to accept that there will be a period of time when our experience with it will be less than ideal. Even frustrating. But there are ways of dealing with trolls that are effective.

1. Don’t play with them on your team.

This is perhaps the ideal, and may be impossible in some cases, but is relatively manageable in team games. Do your best to find a community that you feel is worth your time and be a part of it. This may mean you play with your friends only, or it might also mean that you stumble upon a subreddit or a newsgroup concerning your game, and find that the people there are exceptionally friendly or helpful.

Once you’re there, play with them rather than (at least in League of Legends’ case) solo-queue. This has a couple of advantages of not only minimizing your contact with trolls, but also probably improving your game, depending on the size of the community. You learn how to perform your role better, and wind up enjoying the game more.

2. Combat trolling.

“Don’t feed the trolls” is not the same thing as combating trolling. In the former, you’re frustrated, probably angry, and just break. You start swearing, yelling, maybe you go AFK in your game. The troll wins. Even in the defeat of your team, he still gets the satisfaction of knowing that he beat you, and that’s all he wants.

But in the later, which is a bit more situation dependent, you can at least stem the tide. If the troll is on their team, you can report him through any means you have available to your game. In League of Legends, this takes the form of the Tribunal, a peer-reviewed system where other players make determinations on how the game played out based on final score and chat logs, and then Riot employees mete out punishments. I think it’s a pretty good system, and if the statistics gathered by Riot are to be believed, then it’s marginally effective as well.

If the troll is on your team, giving shit to the other players, ask him to stop. You might suffer a bit of your own hazing, but you let your other teammates know that that shit isn’t acceptable, and you fight it, just a tiny bit. It does work better if your teammates are people you know, since they might actually listen to you in that case, but we can’t all work with the ideal.

3. The ignore button.

This isn’t as effective a way to deal with trolls as I would like, but it’s pretty ubiquitous, and follows the internet’s oldest rule about trolls. Most games have some sort of function where you can ignore a certain user. This can be taken advantage of within the game to let you ignore them, and thereby, never deal with them again.
This is my least favorite way of dealing with trolls because it doesn’t actually solve the problem of their behavior in the first place, but there’s only so much to be done about that, largely involving actual remorse on the part of the troll. Really, it feels like you’re just pawning the problem off on other people, but it is an effective strategy, as about 25 years of being online has shown us.

I think as gamers, we have to adapt to the idea that there are people in our games who, just for the lulz, want us to be miserable. The first defense against such behavior is knowing it exists, and then dealing with the emotions generated by that behavior in a responsible way. If you’re just going to ragequit because some guy calls you a “fagtard n00b”, then you’ve lost, and they’ve won, and you wasted your time.

But if you can get the better of them, even when they are kicking you while you’re down, then you can appreciate the high points of your games much more than if you’re being so angry that you can’t see straight. So please, don’t feed the trolls.

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In Korea!

September 22nd, 2011 No comments

Sorry for the infrequent updates. I’m in Korea.

No really. In South Korea.

I don’t have my computer ready quite yet, and I never really posted a lot to begin with, so if you watch this space, expect slow updates, and probably not concerning gaming as much.


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May 9th, 2011 3 comments

Before we had language, we had stories. People have always wanted to communicate, to share experiences, and to entertain. “Remember that mammoth Ogg killed that one time?” Oh Ogg, you rascal. You legend. We still tell stories of older times, and they still resonate. The Iliad and Odyssey, the Romance of the Three Kingdoms, the Epic of Sundiata, the Epic of Gilgamesh, Beowulf, the Popol Vuh. The stories of ancient Goddesses and kings, heroes and villains, trials to overcome, lessons to be learned. Storytelling is one of the things that makes us human, and it has adapted as we have. With new ways to communicate, we’ve come up with new ideas of how stories should be told. Radio dramas and eventually movies were made possible by advances in technology. Though we’ve always had plays, the ability to reach a very large audience was limited by the dimensions of the theatre the play was staged in. With the advent of radio and motion pictures, the restraints of the physical were loosened.

The march of progress continues, and with it, we consider the role of video games as narrative devices. Though board games have had roots in storytelling, video games offer a unique way to explore stories of people, places, and events. Though all games require the player to be aware that they are playing, some video games have been able to bend or twist this perception. Extra Credits makes a compelling case for this in Missile Command, in that the player should put themselves in the role of someone defending six cities close enough to drive to. Hundreds of thousands, possibly millions of lives are in your hands and you have to save them from an unknown assailant who just keeps raining missiles on those six targets. It’s easier to save them of course if you let some of them die, as there are fewer targets, but then again, you’ve just let your fellow countrymen be obliterated. It may be easier to save the rest, but only for a time, as Missile Command doesn’t end until all six cities are gone. It ends only when everyone dies.

The story-within-a-story convention has also seen a degree of success in gaming. Final Fantasy Tactics, possibly my favorite game ever, asks you to recount the tale of a brutal war for a country. You play Ramza, a character lost to history, and though the game’s mechanics are clearly a JRPG, the story is not just of Ramza’s successes and failures, but is seen through the lens of time. The narrator is a historian from four hundred years in the future, telling us the deeds of a man who was purged from the annals of the world. No. Really. FFT takes one of the standard Final Fantasy narratives, a globe-changing war, and talks not only about it, but the tendency of humans to bury the things we don’t agree with. Ramza lost, or else he’d be recorded as a hero, but we are introduced to him as a man who is outside of the scope of history, someone forgotten because he was inconvenient to the winner’s designs. Their plans. Their story. It’s a brilliant piece of narrative, and one perhaps only possible in a video game. How else would get to experience the life of someone who was erased from history?

The first person perspective in video games does similarly interesting things to narrative. We are forced by perception to be in the story ourselves. Nothing else gets us quite as close to the action of a story. Even with first person narration, we don’t get the experience of being in the story. “I walked to the bank, took out some money, flirted with the teller, and then got in my car to go home. Along the way, I saw a dog chasing a cat, and some kids riding bikes.” This is a somewhat different experience than playing a game in which your all your perspective is is everything on the screen. Here, I’d like to introduce perhaps the most well told story of the past five years, Portal (and Portal 2). Apologies to Mr. Patrick Rothfuss. Seriously, go read his books.

The first person style of Portal 2 is exceptionally useful in telling a compelling story. These things don’t just happen to Chell, but to you, the player. GLaDOS isn’t giving speeches to some woman in a weird laboratory, but to people who are sitting at their computers, figuring out things for science. However, if all that Portal had to bring to the table was a first person perspective, it wouldn’t be doing the medium a whole bunch of favors. They’ve been done before. Even first person non-shooters have had their time in the sun, as evidenced by the Myst series, and even The 7th Guest. No, what Portal does is take an interesting story and tell it well, with both monologuing from a great character as well as incorporating mechanics into the storytelling, particularly in Portal 2.

Without trying to spoil too much, Portal 2 takes one of the core aspects of a puzzle game and turns it into a great way to tell the backstory of the world which the characters live in. Necessarily, Portal 2 requires you to explore, to find out new ways of going places, and to think of new ways of doing things. In so exploring, you are forced to uncover the story of the Aperture Labs, how they got built, who built them, and why. It talks about loss and struggle while being a struggle itself. It is a challenge to make your way through the middle third of the game, as the layout of the labs undergoes a decided shift. As a result, you find out a lot about the character of the builder of the labs, as well as GLaDOS, your former archenemy turned reluctant ally.

The speech in the game is also legendarily funny. Well written, sharp, just a tad creepy, GLaDOS’ monologue is not only well phrased, but expertly delivered. Though more characters are introduced in Portal 2, each feels very natural to the world, as though they were lurking at the edges of Portal the entire time. Their own writing is just as sharp, their vocal characterizations just as endearing. Again, trying not to spoil anything.

Ultimately, what the experience comes down to is a well crafted piece of narrative excellence, one that can’t be achieved with just pictures or words, but interactivity. Portal 2, and in particular the end sequence, isn’t particularly groundbreaking in terms of video games, except to say that it is storytelling done oh-so-right. It takes the emotional qualities of a great novel and blends them with a dramatic, fantastic display characteristic of any Hollywood blockbuster. In the synthesis of script, sounds, and scenes, we get an amazing story that shows what video games are beginning to accomplish in terms of art.

We’re at the beginning of a movement. Recently, the National Endowment for the Arts extended the definition of the grants to include Arts In Media. For those of you still skeptical if video games can qualify as art, this should help settle that debate. A government agency empowered to give money on their behalf extended the definition of media to include:

All available media platforms such as the Internet, interactive and mobile technologies, digital games, arts content delivered via satellite, as well as on radio and television.

It’s up to us to make sure that the stories we tell are not just of King Arthur and Bruce Lee, but also of Chell and GLaDOS, of Ramza and Cloud, of Mario and Peach. These are our heroes, and our legends.

Let’s tell some stories.

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The More Things Change

April 1st, 2011 1 comment

Role-playing games are an escape from reality. We play to forget the hardships of a day, and to enjoy the company of friends. We play because we would rather be these other people, at least for a few hours. But the few moments we can steal away from the dreary day-to-day are still at the whim of Real Life. Sometimes, we can no longer make the commitments that we made when we started gaming. Sometimes, we’re no longer having fun with these characters, or this party, or this DM. And sometimes, Real Life says “Enough.”

And we stop.

It’s lamentable. It’s tragic even. With bittersweet farewells in character and mixed feelings out, we try to reconfigure the game to deal with the absence of characters and players who we had previously counted on.

And that’s the rub. We did count on these people. We counted on the storyteller to keep telling stories, or the tank to keep getting all those big, bad monsters not to hit us. We counted on the healer to keep us alive. We counted on the rogue to gank bitches and take names, damn it! We counted on our friends, and we can’t any longer.

So how to move on? How to deal with the absence introduced? Well, that depends on a lot of things, but mostly it depends on whether the person who is leaving was a mere player on a stage, or if he was the storyteller.

If the storyteller’s gone, then nine times out ten it’s the end of the game. It’s a little different in a LARP, where players have a lot of investment in the games themselves, but if it’s a tabletop game, or if it’s a raid, that might very well be the death knell of it. You can kiss that game good bye, and those stories probably finish without ending. Maybe that’s the greatest tragedy; the game got started because the people around it wanted to tell a story, and they’ll never have that chance any more. The sour feelings and wishful thinking that the game could be resurrected someday almost pale in comparison to the story having never reached a “the end”.

It’s far more common, and far more muddy, if it’s a player who leaves. If one player leaves, usually the person in charge (the ST or raid lead) will try to fill that place in, try to get someone new to pick up the slack. This usually works, but doesn’t usually work well. New party dynamics have to be figured out, new relationships have to be established in an already established order. Can it work? Like real world relationships that have problems, it’s really only possible if everyone left tries to make it work. The new player has to do their best to fill the role expected of them, and the rest of the group has to try and accommodate the new. It’s more disastrous if one person’s leaving triggers an exodus, and suddenly, a noticeable percentage of the game just isn’t there anymore.

In either case, if the remaining people want to save it, they have to make the decision to try to save it. They have to be willing to put in the effort to do the heavy lifting, and to deal with the new that has taken the place of the old. It’s hard for the people who don’t make the decision to leave, but instead decide to try and rebuild, knowing they’ll not only be a little sadder, but that the game they’re now playing is not the game they agreed to play when the game began. All games change over time, but rarely do they change so radically.

On the other hand, the players might not want to save the game. They might just want to reform, with a new idea. Play a different game, raid with completely different characters. Moving on from what was to what will be, what could be. The possibility of having something new to take the player’s mind of the old is a very alluring concept. Since the old game failed, after all, you have all this free time to fill it up with a new game.

There is also the decision to just tough it out. Maybe you don’t need that person in the way you thought you did. Maybe you can get on, ignoring the limp, the phantom character sensation as it were. It doesn’t always apply, of course. You need a storyteller, and you need a couple of players, but you can sometimes make do with less. Maybe you had more than you needed to begin with, and it’s actually a blessing in disguise. Your games are faster now, streamlined without that extraneous part of the group.

But ultimately, the problem isn’t with the person who’s leaving. They’ve made their peace, and their decision, and carry on with their lives. They knew what they were doing, and when the finally put their foot down, there isn’t a lot that another people can do about it.

No, the problem is with who’s left.

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The Beginning of the End

November 21st, 2010 1 comment

4.0.1 has been out for only a few weeks at this point, but its changes have been significant. While Deathwing’s sweep over the face of Azeroth will redesign the zones entirely, the pre-patch brings with it all the class changes both anticipated and feared about for the past four months since their initial announcement. At this point, I’m feeling the sense though that the changes are just a little short of the mark. They’re not meant for the game as it is now, but as it will become, and that seems to show through with the late game raiding I’ve done. Still, it’s good to get this out of the way now, and practice it for when we go into Cata proper. For now it’s a bit incomplete, but the changes are something to write home about. Or at least to you, dear readers.

The one-two punch to the game has been the wholesale revamp of the talent trees as well as the radical UI changes. There’s a lot of under-the-hood, mechanical grittiness that has been excised and shifted about as well, but the most prevalent changes are the ones that stare back at you as you’re looking them over.

The most pervasive, note-worthy changes are the dramatic reconfiguration of talents. Every talent tree has been cut down to 31 points, and all the talent trees are given a “signature” talent, one that defines them as a talent tree, and some trees have a passive ability. Enhancement Shamans for example get dual-wielding as a passive ability and Lava Lash as their signature ability. Additionally, at level 80, a Mastery ability is unlocked. This functions with a new stat, Mastery, to provide some sort of additional passive bonus that can get better. Symbosis is the Mastery ability of Restoration Druids, whose heals are more effective on people with heal-over-time spells on them, and the more Mastery they have, the more effective they are.

These two changes make talents more accessible while preserving their crunch, their mechanical depth. Every tree is stronger at the bottom end, at level 10 when you make your choice and get your abilities, but when you get to level 80, the usefulness of your Mastery has to be considered when raiding. Do you prioritize Mastery above crit, or haste, for example? Is it worth that much? Well, you can crunch the numbers and based on that, you can reforge.

Oh sorry. More mechanical crunch in with your synopsis of changes, my bad. Got them mixed in again. Reforging is a process where you can take one secondary stat (crit, haste, expertise) and change it for another (dodge rating, mastery, parry rating). The examples are more broad than that, but hopefully you get the picture. It allows (to a degree) to have a suboptimal piece, because you can reforge the part of it you don’t want into a more useful stat.

The other omnipresent change is the redesign of the UI to include two features:

The first feature is a built in display that activates when something procs, which is to say that when something suddenly becomes different because it is free or a situation arises where I can use it, shit lights up. I’ve seen this the most on my Warlock, when Empowered Imp triggers and I suddenly have a free Soulfire to fling around, but this also comes up on Tabs when he shifts into Tree of Life and things become changed because of it.

The second feature is a built in raid-frame, which I have found exceptionally helpful. It’s not as compact as a raid frame like Grid, for example, but it does what I want it to do: tell me about buffs I can dispell, show everyone’s health, and how much my heals are projected to do for them. It also shows me the hots I cast on them, but this is really only useful as Tabs.

There are smaller changes to each class, but I’m just going to go over the ones I have experience with:

Death Knight – The overhaul of the talents means that Blood is your one stop shop for tanking. Unholy and Frost now have nothing to do with it, and while I’m not quite as happy with the change (I thought talents in every tree was an important idea about the DK), Death Knights got the best end of the stick as far as 4.0.1. tanking goes, because their AOE tanking is still very much a part of them. Death and Decay’s cost got chopped down to just one Unholy rune, and Blood Boil is now even stronger as a tanking tool.

Druid – Swipe.SWIPE MOTHER FUCKERS. Pulverize is cool though. That’s more or less all I have to say about it. Also, I miss swipe. But cat damage is pretty high, which is cool. Also, I like Tree as Metamorphosis, so if any of you people have issue with that, I’m sorry. But really, that’s it. Swipe, you godless sons-of-bitches.

The important change to both of these classes that I as a tank have noticed is the “on next hit” mechanic, which was removed like a bad memory in Dollhouse. Both Rune Strike and Maul are no longer “whenever you next swing” but “right the fuck now”, or as Blizzard likes to call it “instant”. As such, it requires a little bit of reworking to get the patterns and timing right again, but it shouldn’t be too hard to pick up.

Warlock – Curses and Banes and Soulburns, oh my. But seriously, Curse of Agony and Doom were split off into their own nifty thing called a “bane”, which is just another way of saying moar dots, or just getting Agony and Doom on while you hit something with a curse of elements. Also, Soul Shards were transformed into things that empower spells with a spell called Soulburn. You really wanna cast Soul Fire right now? Well, chuck a Soul Shard at it. BAM. Instant Soul Fire. How nice.

Rogue – Lots of fun to level; Recuperate is bomb. That’s about it. I’m looking forward to playing my shammy too.

Overall, I think that the patch has been interesting, but it feels like we’ve got an incomplete game on our hands. Notably, we have few too talent points, and mastery has no depth. For the first point, things like Evangelism and Archangel were clearly designed to be paired with Shadow priests, as well as Perseverance for Feral Druids, but these talents aren’t available to those builds without five additional talent points. Secondarily, it’s hard to rate the true effectiveness of Mastery until we have more gear for it. Theorycrafting for the usefulness at 80 seems a mere thought experiment that people run through to have fun with some numbers, rather than have a meaningful affect on the raiding landscape.

I have enjoyed my time in Northrend. My raid team and I just killed Halion (man does he have bad breath) for the first time, so it was nice to experience the endgame for a patch, but now, I’m just looking forward to Deathwing’s arrival, to get my claws into something new.

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The Real Me

August 1st, 2010 3 comments

Sometime ago, Blizzard announced Real ID, a system where people could communicate with their friends in ways that were previously impossible. If you had permission (which is to say someone’s email address and the ability to get them to say yes) you could talk to them with Real ID regardless of faction, realm, or game. The first two only really matter for WoW, but they’re a pretty important part of why I like Real ID so much. Since its implementation, neither the fact that a good friend of mine plays Alliance and I play Horde nor that we play on different servers matters any more; I can talk to him all I like as long as one of his characters is on. In about two weeks from now, Starcraft II is releasing with Real ID functionality, and that’s where cross-game communication takes place. My buddies who are running for their lives from Banelings can tell me about it while I tell them about running for my life from the Lich King. Presumably, Diablo III will have this feature as well, and people will continue this trend by telling us about how they ran for their lives from demonic hordes. Though communication external to the game is certainly possible, communication within the game has the primary advantage of shared context: when I am talking to people with Real ID, I know that they are online gaming, and indeed, what game they are playing. Though presumably they are my friends already, this gives us (or reinforces) the common ground we share, and I think it can be said defines what Blizzard wanted to do with Real ID anyway: establish a community.

But community on the internet is a funny thing. Perhaps the most important of the components in my favorite Internet Formula is anonymity. People don’t want to be known online. It’s why we have screen names, avatars, user IDs. It’s why we don’t call each other Bob or Jill but Kagor and Ash’ra’ael. The importance of identity is diminished on the internet, where I can call myself anything I like, on any medium I choose: I can create email addresses, forum handles, avatar names. Who I am becomes less important than what I say.

As a result, people feel freer. Explicitly not safer since safety necessitates a diminished perception of threat, but people who use the internet feel no need to restrain themselves quite as much. They can say things that they’ve never told people, or wouldn’t say normally. They call people obscene things, and rant at length about secret loves. They have no need for pretense when everyone is acting by the same rules: when I say that my weekend was spent gearing up my paladin and priest for the changes coming in Cataclysm, you don’t have to stare at me. You know exactly what I mean.

When Blizzard announced, about a month ago, that they were going to enabled Real ID names for all of their forum posts, the response was overwhelming. Literally. That thread almost got to 50,000 posts, the vast majority of which decried the change. One of the most compelling I read plainly and simply stated the reasons that the poster (Faythe, of Sol Eternum on Icecrown) hated the idea.

I, the poster, am one or more of the following:

- a woman
- a minor
- a member of an ethnic minority
- a person of alternative sexuality
- a transgendered person
- a person with a unique/uncommon name
- a person who has been harassed/stalked
- a person in an information-sensitive profession
- a person who may be Google searched by co-workers/employers/potential employers
- a person who may be Google searched by mates/potential mates
- a person who is concerned about account security
- a person who is uninterested in online social networking
- a person who does not fit any of these categories but who is nonetheless concerned for him/herself or for the welfare of others

and I oppose RealID for one or more of these reasons:

- It is a threat to personal safety.
- It is a threat to personal security.
- It will not eliminate/significantly reduce trolling.
- It should be optional; choosing between risk and silence is not truly “optional”.
- Unified tags/handles provide the same effect with minimal risk.
- World of Warcraft is not Facebook.

If this decision persists, I will do one or more of the following:

- Refrain from posting on these forums.
- Seriously reconsider my subscription.
- Cancel my subscription. Have already attempted twice to cancel my account, but the page isn’t working. Will call and cancel.
- Prepare to cancel my subscription should RealID be made mandatory in-game.

Though there are many good sources of information and discussion on WoW apart from the game’s main forums, Blizzard has been the place for its own community moderators and game designers. It’s the place where Blizzard’s official policy is made public, and it has a lot of weight because of that. All of that weight means that when we get to nearly 50,000 posts about how this is a bad thing, we arrive at Blizzard’s reversal.

Rather than sticking with it, the policy was revoked. Posted about three weeks ago, Blizzard chose to listen to their supporters.

We’ve been constantly monitoring the feedback you’ve given us, as well as internally discussing your concerns about the use of real names on our forums. As a result of those discussions, we’ve decided at this time that real names will not be required for posting on official Blizzard forums.

Was it a smart move? Maybe. There’s certainly a couple of different arguments we could follow, about whether Blizzard should’ve stuck to their guns and gone through with it, because its their game and their servers and they’ll do the things they want to in their own way. There’s the other side of the coin that says that Facebook’s already gotten a lot of heat for privacy concerns and this, being the hot button topic of the web for the past few months (a long time on this here internet), needs to be addressed carefully to the consumer’s satisfaction.

I think the end result is a mixed bag. Blizzard has partnered with Facebook in regards to RealID, and though I’m loving the ability to talk to my WoW guildmates from SCII, I think the problem is that privacy and security are a big concern with both right now, and Blizzard has ominously used the words “for now” regarding a lot of the RealID development. The issues and stakes have been raised, and it’s up to the community that Blizzard has created to stand up for themselves. If something like this happens again, the people who are affected have to be vigilant, and cry out, 50,000 posts strong:


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