TSW: The Sun Rises in the East and Other Tales

Praise Ra, the Sun God, for this magnificent land! (Btw, staring directly into the sun is only safe in computer games.)

Hooray, crazy deadline week is over, and we hope to return to our regularly scheduled wall-of-text bombardment every 2-3 days. *crosses fingers*

I also cleaned out the comments spam queue and rescued a comment or two.

For the record, this blog is set to first approval then you can comment freely, so that everyone isn’t plagued by bots selling Viagra and other more interesting links. If you don’t run a blog, it’s amazing how many bots try and use flattery (“your post is fantastic reading!” “awesome, I learned a lot!”) to get their comment approved. It’s amusingly healthy for the ego to just take them at face value and still not approve any of their spam links.

For real people commenting, please try and help me differentiate your comment by forming real sentences, include a solid opinion (dissent is fine), and preferably something paragraphy or wall-of-texty, else I seriously cannot tell apart the bots and I keep erring on the side of safety. If your comment has been eaten, I apologize, please try again.

As for gaming, I’ve been stealing game time with some casual games that we’ll get around to talking about and debatably casual Civilization 5 (the game seems to be polished and simplified to make it more beginner-friendly, and I’m playing very casually for now on the wimpy default Chieftain difficulty which just lets me spread my empire across the globe – I’m an easy fun kind of person most of the time.)

I also got around to doing more in The Secret World. Double hooray!

Unfortunately, I also discovered that when you hit 999 screenshots, TSW doesn’t let you take any more, so I lost a couple of good well-framed scenic shots. Ah well. I’ve shoved them all into another renamed folder so we can hopefully begin from zero again.

I found the Brood-Witches creating Incubators! From zombies, so I guess the Draug life cycle is slightly more complicated. The question now is, what made the zombies? The fog? The filth?

Who knows.

I’m messing around in the first zone of Egypt now, having gotten tired of trying to help fairly ungrateful trailer park Indians (or to be PC, Native Americans) with an unceasing Wendigo problem. I’m sure I’ve left some quests undone, but having completed the main storyline mission, it felt right to move on and take a break from endless fog.

Trying to avoid spoilers, but the storyline mission and subsequent events were fun. It made me want to start playing another alt in order to explore the path not taken and the choice I didn’t make. Resisting the urge so far.

The reward of looking up once in a while. A hole through which the moon is visible. Love the level design of TSW. Screenshot potential is through the roof.

(Spoiler warning about the choice I made: I went for the potentially ominous ‘moar power’ from possibly Cthulhu-like Elder gods from another dimension. Just felt right for that character. I’ll play a goody goody loyalist some other time.

And about an NPC in the main storyline whose name starts with B: I’m also convinced Beaumont is Loki from all the name and phrase-dropping he did. Hope we’ll see more of him in the future.)

By some strange quirk of timing and xp accumulation, the faction special assignment mission Rogue Agent also hit me at this time (that’s a lot of Illuminati phone calls and cross-messages from Geary and the Labyrinth and other people) and I went ahead to attempt it, even though it was labeled as Devastating. Just couldn’t bear the thought of all that xp in Egypt not contributing to faction rank.

Wow. Rogue Agent Tier 5 … That was the most seriously difficult fight I ever did, if we discount the probable outlier of that one Jilted Bride incarnation. I’m not 100% sure what to make of it. On the one hand, it’s not terribly obvious at first read what gimmicks are in play. I died a couple times attempting various tactics that ignored the mechanics (rush them or kite them, basically) and decided to Google for hints.

On the other hand, there are cues for the observant if I’d bothered. The two NPC rivals that aggro along with the main uber target are obviously positioned between the two lion / dragon statues for a reason. It’s perhaps not so obvious how close you need to be to them, but when you do, a visual aura emanates from the statue and a very obvious indicator turns up over your head. If you actually read the cooldown timer that pop up like buff icons on your status bar (though it’s very hard to when you’re getting sliced up and shot at), the names hint at the function of each statue.

Shield Disruptor Shrine: Green aura, dispels his “immunity to all damage” shield buff.

Interrupt Shrine: Red aura, run near it to interrupt his “Unbridled Fury” spell attack.

Once I understood what the statues were supposed to do, then it was just a matter of practice and execution in the running back and forth. Basically, immune shield disrupt him whenever his immunity buff pops up, and when he starts casting “Unbridled Fury,” then run like hell to the interrupt shrine to break his concentration or else eat some horrible damage.

One or two attempts later (tried to kite when most of my damage is in blade skills), Mr Devastating Difficulty Boss went down fairly easily – after I just gave up sophisticated LOS-ing and dodging and unleashed blade chopity-chop in the middle of both statues, making it easier to trigger each as needed.

So long, rouge agent. Pun intended, and used to great effect by the mission voice-overs. Also, I just noticed when titling this picture – “so long traitor” and “soloing traitor” look rather alike. Random wordplay fun.

I am greatly enjoying these sorts of fights solo. The pace at which I master the challenge does not ruin anybody else’s fun or need to live up to anyone else’s expectations.

As for Egypt, I’m liking it a lot so far. The density of the quests and NPCs and storytelling has not yet abated. I went in expecting lots of sun, and of course, I arrived at night. Beautiful cool-looking (in all senses of the word) night.

Awesome vistas. Roof-climbing gave me Age of Conan flashbacks. The view is just as rewarding.

You know how much attention to detail and verisimilitude there is in this game?

I watched a moon set because it looked fantastic and colored the world in glorious dawn shades.

(I’m sure it’s prettier if I had a DirectX 10 or 11 capable computer – the last Steam hardware survey let me know my ailing system is now in a minority 15% representation, way past time to upgrade, I know, but I’m broke *sobs* – but it’s still nice.)

Then on a whim, I decided to turn 180 degrees in the opposite direction and see if the sun was rising.

It was.

Checking the map and compass in the UI, the sun rises DEAD ON in the east. And thus the moon sets in the west.

Words fail to express how impressed I am.

(You gotta understand, I come from a City of Heroes first MMO background where the sun and moon does nothing of that sort, they rise and fall but not at all where you’d expect.)

Learning the Metagame – Personal First Thoughts

Metagaming: Bringing tactical combat gear (and an Apache helicopter) to a knife fight

Warning: This may turn out to be a very long post on learning the metagame in games.

I’m mulling on two things specifically:

1. How much of this learning should be clued or signaled in-game or given in-game training tools (as opposed to out-of-game tips/guides/walkthroughs from other players)

2. Preferences for learning on a group or individual basis, possibly influenced by extrovert or introvert tendencies

But first, a very long introduction.

As Dusty Monk says, he of the original idea starter,

Every MMO of any complexity has a rich metagame to learn and enjoy beyond the up front “jam on your ability keys until mob is dead” mechanic.  What I think distinguishes a good game design from a poor one is to what extent the game forces you to have to play the metagame, and how soon it forces you to learn it – if at all.

All games have a metagame – optimal strategies for playing the game in a manner that allows you to win, progress or get a high score. That’s generally the point of games, learning the rules and boundaries of the design in order to do better at playing the game and achieving whatever ‘win conditions’ are set by the developers’ design. Make the metagame complex enough, or with enough varied, alternative options and strategies, and you get the often praised ‘depth’ to a particular game. Too simple to master, and players just do it, ‘win’ and get rapidly bored.

Players of MMOs, or virtual worlds and sandboxes in particular, are pretty adept at redefining what the  ‘win conditions’ and ‘playing better’ means to them, which I believe is a good thing. It shows that MMOs are big enough to play host to a variety of people, not all of which have to share the same goal or metagame. Some may enjoy playing the traditional raid progression endgame, which then involve necessary optimisation strategies for one’s character and one’s schedule to play in a group. Some may be content just hitting max level and stopping. Or accumulating one of each race and class of alt. Or the world’s largest collection of pets and mounts. Or costumes. Or screenshots. Or PvPing. Or whatever.

Each may have their own set of optimisation strategies. I don’t need large wardrobe slots, all bank account slots unlocked, or multiple mules. Ye olde hat collector, or auction house trader (with the exception of the wardrobe, that is) might.

I myself have advised people to really examine what they want out of a game, and to either treat the game in a different way or move on when it can no longer fulfill their needs/wants, rather than get sucked down the road of other peoples’ expectations. It’s so easy to, as a commenter over at Spinksville, Boxerdogs, mentions:

The metagame in WoW snuck up on me as it does so many, by my wanting to be a good “contributor” to the raid. But learning a metagame like that is quite taxing. I kinda got suckered into learning one, and I don’t regret it at all, but I have found with SWTOR and Guild Wars 1 that I just couldn’t muster the enthusiasm to learn a new, complex game.

Now let’s talk about the MMO combat metagame that most folks are thinking of when they say “metagame,” wherein gear selection, optimal builds and skill rotations are often important, a good UI or add-ons can be helpful, may assume basic knowledge of jargon like “aggro,” “kite,” “AoE,” etc,  involves a fair amount of theorycrafting and out-of-game reading/discussion/copy-and-pasting of stuff other people have either mathematically calculated or video recorded to demonstrate easy-to-apply tactics,  may require some muscle memory and practice and maybe quick-ish reaction times (not to mention WASD and mouselook, is that as controversial as whether to use keyboard shortcuts or very quick mouse clicks?), and where combat parsing is often used in the search for the holy grail of efficiency…

That’s… a lot of stuff to learn. Some of it can apply from game to game, and we MMO gamers have actually absorbed a lot of it without realising. (Watch a complete newbie try to navigate an MMO some time.) But the game specific stuff can already be quite tedious a task to take on, as Spinks posits while trying to decide if she wants to join the SWTOR raid endgame:

…there comes a point where if you want to be competitive or complete cutting edge content, you have to stop playing in an exploratory, playful way, and start playing in a more defined and optimised way. Or in other words, there comes a point where you have to decide if you want to look stuff up and learn the metagame, or just move on…

…[there's also] metagame fatigue where you spent so much time theorycrafting or practicing your minmax spec in one game that you need a break from that intensity of gameplay, or don’t want to switch to a game with another involved metagame.

Sometimes learning too much about the metagame sucks all the fun out of the game and leads to burn out. My personal theory is that this tends to happen if the game isn’t balanced in a way that leads to multiple, viable, interesting, alternate options, or deeper counter to a counter mechanics that allow players to feel a sense of control and personal agency over what they are doing and/or to vary things up, be it for novelty’s sake or to catch an unsuspecting opponent by surprise.

Starcraft’s metagame is notoriously elaborate, along with, I believe, DOTA-like games, though I haven’t much experience with their ilk. I tend to dislike games in a World of Warcraft vein, where there are one or a few good optimal copy-this-cookie-cutter spec and everything else is numerically suboptimal. True choice is limited if you’re playing a metagame which discards all the other options as invalid for the purpose.

Sometimes players are too fast to do this too, though.

There may be better ways and better strats, that don’t get found until someone breaks convention and does something different.

Me, I don’t mind optimising to a limited extent, on my own, under my control, at my own pace. But I do mind having to live up to an external ideal or standard enforced by other people or by restrictive game design that forces you to be ‘this high’ in order to start doing whatever.

I rather enjoyed what Guild Wars asked of its individual players, once I got my head around the entire “Magic: The Gathering” concept and other uniquely Guild Wars schticks.

I once bogged down in Thunderhead Keep and for the life of me, couldn’t figure out how to move on from there. It took 2+ years of learning in another MMO (City of Heroes) before the entire concept of aggro and aggro radius became internalised to a point that when I returned to Guild Wars, it was a cakewalk to look at my radar minimap and pull and otherwise pick apart groups that liked to patrol close to each other. This is a key mechanic in GW, btw, your party appears designed to take on one group of mobs well, and if you blindly charge ahead into a chokepoint where 2 or 3 groups patrol into each other, you’re in for a mad fight and probably a walk back as your party shows up at the last rez shrine you crossed.

At the point I was having major issues in Thunderhead Keep, I had no such understanding and would walk straight into such traps, limping out only by virtue of two monk henchmen and blind 60% death penalty persistence if need be. (My ranger’s build also sucked, and I don’t think I used his skills well enough to do him much justice either. I’m not really a long range caster sort by nature.)

With that hurdle down, it was easier to start learning from PvXwiki about what ‘good’ builds were, and after copying a few to learn from, to start grasping the concepts behind skills synergizing with each other, and choosing skills appropriate for the occasion as dictated by the mobs you would be fighting. Most of the time, it was still easier to use the chapter-approved uber builds for both myself and my heroes, but I grew confident enough to swap some skills in and out as needed (as first suggested by wiki recommendations) and later, that fit what I wanted to achieve for the mission or dungeon (eg. extinguish for a monk if burning was going to be flying around willy nilly, remove hex for hexes, etc.)

In fact, I enjoyed it thoroughly. I’m still fond of going back to the game, I just have less urgency to do so after happily finishing HoM 30/50 and getting distracted by “ooh shiny” games of the month. Guild Wars is a classic that can keep for whenever I feel like it. Thank you, no sub fee.

So with a self-chosen, self-directed goal, it seems I am quite content to do some searching at my own pace, do a bit of experimentation and trial and error with different builds and strategies, and even die alone repeatedly and keep going back for upwards of 15+ absurd repetitions. (See my flailing around in the Moon Bog in the Secret World, enjoying myself thoroughly when I figured out a solution that works for me.)

But you know, I don’t like to do this sort of learning in a group.

Perhaps it’s just me being too sensitive for my own good, or tending to compare others to myself, but as I mentioned before, I both demand a lot of perfection/optimisation out of myself (out of both a desire to pull my own weight, contribute and do well, and fear of embarassment or disappointing others) and it also bugs me when I see others slacking off (out of ignorance or willfulness, the first is forgivable, the second less so) and forcing others to shoulder an extra load. This is also primarily a -performance- issue.

What about learning? I don’t want to have to start the learning process in an ordinary group, which is normally focused on performance and executing well. There’s too much pressure to learn fast and learn quickly… or else.

And worse, to have to learn at their pace, not my own. I’m a poor auditory learner. I hate Ventrilo and having someone talk ceaselessly while I’m trying to focus on doing something. I end up distracted, paying attention to their voice, rather than what’s on my screen. Groups who type also tend to teach badly, because most type in a hurry, in abbreviated form, and are mostly interested in go-go-go and speed. So you’re forced to learn by doing and pray that it’s not too hard and that you don’t accidentally wipe the group from ignorance.

I’m primarily visual and I enjoy reading books and walls-of-text by myself in order to learn something. Wikis and guides are okay, and scanning through forums and blogs. Videos are meh, mostly because of the audio component which means I can’t really fast forward through stuff and have to give up 20 minutes or whatever length of time the video takes to play. Failing which, I’d rather try doing and learning by trial and error. By myself, thank you.

Not where someone will get irritated at me for failing 15 times for being a “slow learner,” or as I like to call it, being thorough, experimental (because I don’t believe in just one true way of execution and must try various ideas) and just plain goddamn stubborn. When I learn something, I don’t like to learn enough to “just get by” or to follow someone else’s method blindly, I like to learn it to the point where I understand the concept and underlying principles and possibly how to apply those ideas/solutions to a different scenario.

Groups by and large just don’t have the patience for that sort of thing. They just want the shiny at the end as quickly as possible. Can’t really blame them, that’s just how it is. Once you’ve done all the learning you care to, then all that’s left is execution, preferably as fast and as well as possible.

It would be indeed nice if more games offered training modes to make the learning curve smoother. Most games are guilty of not getting around to it. Guild Wars has a hero tutorial which is pathetically basic. Why not teach pulling with heroes, aggro radius, corner blocking and such things while you’re at it? (Though albeit in the very first intro missions, they comment on waiting for mobs to patrol away from one another. It goes by so fast, most newbies miss the concept, methinks.)

If dps races and recount and other such combat parsing is going to be an integral part of your game, then by golly, have the combat dummies you provide measure the necessary stats too. If it doesn’t, then don’t have the combat dummies there, and don’t tune your mobs for that sort of thing with enrage timers.

I haven’t gotten around to sampling DDO much, mostly because the build planning appears to involve too much homework in order to minmax your character for the specific function you want (which in my case, would be a worthwhile soloing baseline) but I’m intrigued by the concept of casual mode to both learn the dungeon and see the story, just no/less loot for you.

I also wonder how much of this solo learning preference has to do with my propensity for extreme introversion. On Myers-Briggs type of tests, I tend to break the scale for Introversion and score full marks or close to it for “I”. Hanging around people really tires me out, especially since I have to pretend extroversion to a passable extent to get by in the workplace, and the last thing I want to do when I relax, in a closed room, by myself on the computer, is to hang around with EVEN MORE PEOPLE.

Susan Cain suggests that there’s a fallacy of groupwork being effective, especially where introverts are concerned, in a decent enough book that I just finished reading – Quiet: The Power of Introverts, though she has a tendency to generalize quite a bit.

A quick Google on group vs individual learning styles and introversion suggests I have a lot of meaty reading to do to find out more about this train of thought. I’ll share later if I find anything interesting.

Also, depending on who you ask, introverts make up a good quarter, or third, or even half of the population. We just hide well. And I suspect, a disproportionate number of us are represented in computer games. So why not cater for our learning styles in them? It’ll encourage us to stick around more.

P.S. There’s also a neat cycle of irony going on here in this metagame discussion.

One of the metagames I’m putting off learning is in Orcs Must Die (whom Dusty is apparently a developer of), a generally enjoyable game, but I’m hitting a wall in the later levels on normal war mage difficulty because my trap placements are likely not optimal and I can’t earn enough skulls to upgrade traps any further and I can’t unlock any more levels because it’s getting too hard.

(If I’m forced to backtrack and play through all the levels on novice difficulty with two skulls only, I’ll shoot somebody, no Diablo 3 difficulty level grind for me, thanks.)

On my to-do list is to watch this very promising video that is supposed to teach me about trap combos and maximizing score (assuming it is possible with the basic traps I have unlocked), but egads, it’s so long, I don’t know when I’ll have time for that.

TSW: On the Believability of Mobs

Draug watching, like Baywatch, only much more gruesome...

One of the things I’ll say for Funcom, they really know how to set up their mobs for immersiveness.

Even in Age of Conan, I was especially taken with the way a pack of wolves would be feeding on a kill (before you ignobly interrupt them by walking by) or how a whole family of lion, lioness and cubs would be patroling around their territory (the same functional threat could be executed with a pack of identically skinned hyenas, or even lionesses, so why bother to model male, female and babies?)

More so than other MMOs, it seems to me, they don’t mind placing these things to make sense, rather than follow an “accessibility” or design rule that says, mobs or clumps of mobs must be spaced out at regular intervals, and all roads must be kept clear, yadda yadda.

While it makes their zones potentially more treacherous, it comes across as very believable.

The Secret World is no exception.

Clumps of zombies feed on corpses. Corpses you think are corpses will get up and vicously raven all over you.

Wendigos lay traps and ambushes for unwary travelers, yes, even along roads or paths.

Everybody knows the Ak’ab shuffle dance (step to the left! turn around! step to the right! turn again!)  and the layout of their burrows by now, no doubt. Broodmarks slow their prey along the outskirts, where hunters will come to check on them. Sentries surround their burrows, while groups of their young scurry about. And right smack in the center, their royal burrow and queen awaits. By showing, and not just outright telling, you easily understand that Ak’ab are bugs, of a very annoying kind.

Recently, I spent a good half an hour watching Draug in Blue Mountain (thanks to a ‘kill lots of them’ quest) and I was amazed at how I failed to take note of what they were up to in Kingsmouth and the Savage Coast (I always gave them a pretty wide berth, especially all the areas with brood pods and tons of incubators.)

Incubators. They’re human-sized, with a brood pod-y growth lanced through their stomachs and out their backs. In other words, they were probably humans once. Hopefully taken from dead ones, but who knows, the horror of it could be that they were still alive when the Draug got hold of them.

If you give them some unmolested time, they reach a stage of their development that makes them do this.

They squat down and… metamorphose into this.

OMG. Through all of Solomon Island, I’ve been shooting dozens and dozens of these brood pods to stop Draug from hatching out of them, but it wasn’t until I watched the entire incubator cycle that it really hit me where the hell these brood pods COME FROM.

Again, if you leave the brood pods unmolested for a time, they will promptly hatch (or is the correct term ‘emerge’ from their pupal stage) into full ‘adult’ Draug, indistinguishable from the maulers and broodwitches and so on that hang around the beach.

And of course, which most people have experience with by now, the brood pods will react to your presence (or attack) by attempting speed hatching. Destroy them fast enough and a dead newlyformed Draug something will fall out of the ‘cocoon.’

If not, then a weaker in hp version, prefixed by the words Newly Formed, Draug will pop right out and start attacking you in self-defense.

Now isn’t that a whole lot more interesting a cycle than a mob with a differently-colored skin just appearing out of nowhere and pacing all of six inches from where they spawned in?