Thursday, February 26, 2009

Another step down the road

Yesterday, I bought the Dungeons and Dragons starter set.  Because I wasn't a big enough geek before.

Not that this is entirely unprescendented.  Back in the day, I ran a game of basic D&D for my brother and some friends.  I'm talking basic D&D when there used to be a distinction between that and Advanced Dungeons & Dragons.  Like, we were all in grade school.  I remember reading the Dungeon Master's Guide on the bus.  No wonder I got picked on.  

That group didn't last very long.  The typical exchange went like this:

Me: You step into the room.  Four goblins stand at the far end, snarling and waving their swords.  What do you do?

The Fighter: I search for treasure.

Me: What?

Fighter: I search for treasure.

Me: Okay, you don't find any.  The first goblin hits you for three damage. 

Fighter: Damn.

Me: Okay, next?

Thief: I hide in the shadows and search for treasure.

Me: Fine.  Owing to it being so dark in those shadows, you don't find any.  While looking, the goblin hits the wizard for five damage.  He has two hit points left.  Next?

Wizard: I search for treasure.  


So ideally, I want to start a game with other people who haven't played before so that my suckiness as a DM isn't immediately apparent, and so that we all get to learn about the basic DM tricks together.  If it works out, maybe we can bring in some more experienced folks later.  

So who wants to geek out with me? I swear it'll be fun!

Tuesday, February 24, 2009

Glad I Didn't Play It Theater

You may remember that back in July, I mentioned that I wished I was playing Age of Conan, an MMO set, strangely enough, in the Conan universe.  You know Conan, it's that the endearing story of a brutish muscle-man who can't speak English, yet somehow manages to bed tons of buxom, topless women while ripping the throats out of other dudes.  And then goes on to be the governor of California.  Man, who would've thought that Conan wouldn't know how to run a state?

So the game, like most major MMOs (that's Massively Multiplayer Online game (World of Warcraft is the one you've heard of due to its appearance in a South Park episode)), it was released to great fanfare, and thousands of geeks extolling its virtues.  In this case, its virtues came in pairs, were size DD, and hung out for the world to see.  That's right, nekkid boobies.  This was not the reason I wanted to play, but it likely was the reason for a lot of people.

Even more than most MMOs, this game was huge at launch.  Massive sales, a lots of servers up.  The future looked bright for our barbarian friends.

Then, the crash.  After a few weeks of playing, people figured out that there was basically nothing to do after reaching level 20.  That's level 20 out of 60.  This would be the equivalent of going to see Lord of the Rings, getting everyone together at Rivendell, and then watching them walk across fields for the next three hours.  Actually, that kind of happened.  Except in my metaphor, they'd never get anywhere, and there wouldn't be sweeping helicopter shots, just one guy with a camcorder filming them.

Well, people didn't like this, and quit the game in droves.  The developers made some effort to add content, but, returning to our metaphor, the content they added was the equivalent of the fellowship stopping to ask a farmer for directions.  More people quit.  With no subscription money, the developers have taken huge losses.  Recently, the publisher, based in Switzerland, announced fourth quarter losses of $23.3 million, and the CFO resigned over it.  Had it been a Japanese company, seppukku would have been required.  In Switzerland, they simply stopped letting him have chocolate.

As part of that loss, Funcom also closed down 31 of 48 servers for the game.  This is roughly equivalent to the US shutting down the swath from the Mississippi to the Rockies, and Delaware because they're too sparsely populated and nobody likes it, respectively.  

Of course, the players of the game haven't taken this news well.  Reports from inside the game report large numbers of female characters stripping naked and running through the game world.  It's unclear at this time if this is being done in protest, or by players that haven't yet figured out that photos of actual breasts are widely available on the internet.  That they connect to to play the game.

Thursday, February 19, 2009

Actual phone call to the office

Frequently, people call our main office number with questions about our Product.  Sometimes, the brave folks who answer tell us about them.  Apparently many of the callers have southern accents.  Make of that what you will.  Here's a transcript that was relayed today:
Madame: Hello, i tried pluggin my drums into the wall and it diddnt work.

Me: You need to plug the drums into your console system.

Madame: Oh, what is a console?

Me: A game system, Xbox 360 ect.

Madame: Oh, i dont know what one of those is. So you're telling me i need to buy something else? i got the drums because they looked cute.

Me: Yes mam, you need to buy a console and the rock band game and you play it through your television.

Madame: How does the console get from the drums to your television? we dont have a television. I see 4 buttons and one for your foot. Does the foot one plug into the wall? it doesnt seem to fit.

Me: You should return the drum kit and ask a sales representative what it is that you need to play. 
I fear for humanity, and you should too

RPG Quest

Ah, it's been so long since I've played an RPG (that's Role-Playing Game, now you're smarter!).  I used to love them back in the day.  That day was when I had tons of hours to sink into them, and no other games to distract me.  Those were the days when 50 hours in a game was normal (because they used to be balls hard).

Those days are gone.  These days, games are made to be short, accessible, and disposeable.  That's not a bad thing (mostly, and the disposeable part is definitely a bad thing).  It makes for a healthy game industry, since shorter games can be made more quickly, can be played through more quickly, freeing the gamers up to buy more games.  Accessible games are also good because they encourage new gamers to pick up the controller.  Note that this doesn't have to mean that the game is easy, though it frequently does, just that it teaches you the rules and gives you some practice and positive feedback before throwing you to the wolves.  Left 4 Dead is a good example of a game that doesn't sacrifice difficulty for accessibility.

But there's always been a place in my heart for the long, storyline-driven, epic RPG.  I've steadily bought them over the years, while knowing that my lack of focus lately means that few will get finished.  It wound up worse than that, and none of them did.

Well, I'm out to fix that.  I've embarked on RPG Quest '09.  For at least the next six months, and probably longer, I'm only going to play RPGs, one at at time, going on each one until I finish it.  So far this year, I've been very happy, and very successful.

First was basically a bridge game, Fable 2.  This is an action RPG, meaning that there's a "swing sword" button, and the battles happen in real time, and it's fairly short.  I knocked that out in about 15 hours, ending it with an incredibly evil character who spent most of the game very fat, and with a pair of horns, and at least one wholesale town slaughter to his name.  It was awesome, and rewarding to finish a game.

Next up was Lost Odyssey, a much more traditional Japanese RPG.  There is a definite difference between Japanese RPGs (JRPGs) and western RPGs (with no cute acronym), and I'll probably get into that in a later column.  This one is by several of the guys who helped create the old school Final Fantasy games.  Maybe you've heard of those?

This one was not only turn-based, meaning you plan out your characters' attacks by using a menu, and then watch them perform them, but also long.  My final completion time was 60 hours.  I put in 15 hours of that when I started the game last spring, but the rest was played in the past few weeks.  What's scary is that in gamer terms, that's actually not even playing terribly fast.

This was even more satistying.  For one thing, you can construct a pretty engrossing storyline over the course of 60 hours, and these guys did.  I was very invested in the characters by the end, in a way that I likely never will be with Master Chief or the GTA guy.  It was also fulfilling in that I proved to myself that I was still able to commit to playing a game of that length.  You might be thinking that finishing a game doesn't amount to much of an accomplishment.  My answer to that is that plenty of people view reading Moby Dick or Ulysses as an accomplishment, so why would finishing a long game be any less so?  There's an obvious answer to why that would be, but that's also another column.

So now that I've finished that one, I'm on to my next one: Persona 3.  This one is firmly in the JRPG camp.  The premise can be summarized thusly (kind of): you are a high school student who finds out that there's a 25th hour that happens at midnight.  During that hour, the majority of people are transformed into coffins.  Those that aren't are hunted by creatures who steal their will to do anything.  Some people who don't transform have the power to evoke creatures from their subconscious called personas.  A group of high school students is formed that use devices called Evokers that look like pistols to call upon their personas by shooting themselves in the head with their Evokers (which aren't lethal).  Armed with their personas, they make their way up a 260 floor tower that rises from their school during the 25th hour in hopes of stopping the creatures.  During the day, you attend school, study for exams (do well, and you might get a weapon as a prize!), date, and make friends.  The stronger your connections with other people, the more personas you can create, and the stronger they are.  

So basically, it's Demonic Pokemon meets Saved by the Bell in Tokyo.  Kind of.  It's very strange, and very very good.  It's also very long.  Play times seem to average around 70 hours, and easily double that if you want to catch 'em all.  I've put 15 hours in this week alone.  After I'm done with this game, I've got a whole string more lined up.  This will truly be an epic endeavor, but I think it'll be worth it.  Plus, when I'm done, I'll be able to pick up all the games that come out during this stretch for mad cheap! Hooray!

Fear of Loss

I've seen the following scene play out more times than I care to remember:

I'm sitting there playing a game, with a non-gamer watching.  Every once in a while, they'll make an excited comment about the game.  Eventually, I offer them the controller.  "No, that's okay.  I'll just die."  

Sometimes, they'll take the controller, but before they press a button, will ask what each one does.  Then, they'll timidly start moving around.  Frequently, when confronted with an enemy, they'll try and avoid it.  Imagine someone coming to that first goomba in the original Mario Bros., and running as far to the left of the screen as they can, rather than jumping over or on it.  It's like they're afraid of the game.

What happens when a gamer gets the controller? Well, the first thing they do is push all the buttons, for one thing.  Then they'll start testing the limits of what they're able to do.  They'll probably kill themselves a few times in the process, and then they'll try it again.

What's the difference?  Well, there's a number of differences, actually.  I started this column after reading Jhonen Vasquez's review of the game Flower.  My intent was to give my own thoughts on how fear can manifest in non-gamers.  Funny thing though, I found that there were actually many factors contributing to the reaction I described above, and each of those deserved its own post.  So that's what I'm gonna do.  In the meantime, read that review, it's most interesting.