TSW: The Sun Rises in the East and Other Tales

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.)

Where I Attain the Opportunity to Demonstrate Immoderate Verbosity (Bookworm Adventures Deluxe)

This was the game that sat on my shoulder like a devilish imp, prompting me to finally pick up the entire Popcap bundle during a seasonal sale, despite already having played Plants Vs Zombies, the main popular anchor of a pack stuffed with a lot of other cheaper, cheesier, mainstream-y casual games.

After playing the demo, I just couldn’t get over how goddamn FUN it was.

And how much I wanted to keep playing until I completed the game.

In Bookworm Adventures Deluxe, you guide the main protagonist Lex the Bookworm on his epic quest to save the day and rescue the girl.

If you can get over the cartoony graphics and initial cheesiness, you’ll find that they hide a pretty exciting hybrid between an RPG and Boggle.

Yes, all game mechanics become more fun when we put an RPG wrapper around it. (We can talk about Puzzle Quest (bejeweled+RPG) and Defenders Quest (tower defence+RPG) another time, cos I have those games too.)

It’s crazy, but it works. You make words out of the letters on the grid given to you, and the longer your word, the more damage your excessive grandiloquence does to your opponent.

Given how fond I am of playing with vocabulary, this is a match made in heaven.

And the game is anything but easy.

It starts off simple, and you can get away with making three or four letter words to swiftly beat up the initial opponents, who clock in at about 3-4 hearts. In the earlier chapters, your amusement may derive more from seeing what non-kid-like words the game’s dictionary will let you get away with.

No, the F word doesn’t work. Oh well. Sex does!

Or how long a word you can spell.

Or how ironically appropriate the word is.

Then the complexity ramps up. You win treasures that act as weapons and armor, each with their own altering mechanic. The Bow of Zyx above gives bonus damage to words using the letters X, Y and Z. A Hammer of Hephaestus obtained in a much later chapter ramps up your damage, especially if you spell metal-related words, such as iron, bronze, melt, etc.

Some equipment offers you partial or full protection from special attacks that the more advanced monsters do, such as stunning you for a turn or three while they get free attacks on you, or adding poison or debuffing your strength and so on.

(Really, we’re spelling words here, what is this talk about debuffs and status effects! That’s the RPG component at work…)

You’re limited to bringing only three treasures with you, so choose wisely for what you’ll face. Helpfully, the game will tell you beforehand what special attacks the next chapter’s enemies are fond of using, so it does involve strategy, rather than boiling down to a trial-and-error guessing game.

And yes, there are Boss Battles at the end of every chapter.

Before long, the amount of hearts the enemies have is… staggering, to say the least.

Though it doesn’t stop me from… see above.

Some monsters have the ability to destroy tiles for several turns, making them useless in terms of contributing damage. You can choose to use them up quickly and cycle in new tiles, or just leave them be and work around them. Later, enemies may even Infect certain tiles, and those can spread to adjacent tiles, encouraging the strategy of using them up as quickly as possible.

And then you get the Gem Tiles. By spelling longer words of five letters or more, you get bonus gemmed letter tiles that, when used, give -your- attacks special status effects, such as freezing the enemy for a turn, or adding poison, or debuffing the amount of damage the enemy does (very important!), in addition to buffing your total damage.

Adding to the increased sophistication is the special three-letter word immunity certain bosses sport. Yep, those simple words don’t work no more. No more “Yes” “Sit” Bat” and so on. Four or more letters to do damage, and frankly, if you stick to four letters, you’ll probably get very beat up and use lots of healing potions in the process.

Death is not excessively punishing. You lose all your accumulated potions. If you want more, then you play a few minigames that may win you some bonus potions. And you continue from where you left off.

The setting for the first book was well-chosen, the trials of Ancient Greece, so you face fairly recognizable enemies and tropes (like venturing to the Underworld, a seven-headed hydra, etc.) Being a wordy sort of game, you may also stumbled across sly puns and a easter egg or two.

*cough* *cough* If you can’t recognize the reference, we must really talk about Interactive Fiction in subsequent posts in the future. (Prolixity on purpose.)

The final boss at the end of chapter 10 is no pushover. She was the cause of my first death, and the amount of hearts she has… well, it SCROLLS down as you go through the rows and rows.

I wanted to ask if she was “jilted” but I lacked an E. Close enough. She didn’t take kindly to the inquiry.

All the previously mentioned mechanics are in full play here. You can see the status effects on both of us. The first green tile is a gem that heals me for two hearts when used. The second is an infected tile I was getting rid of as soon as possible. Using the letter Y boosts my damage, thanks to the bow I’m carrying. Look at the amount of specials she has, sheesh.

Challenge level: Not exactly a kid’s game. A smart, brainy one, maybe.

Lemme tell you, any kid who plays this game, I will have tremendous respect for. It is fiendish in how hard it pushes your vocabulary to the limit.

The ten chapters took me a Herculean three hours of rewardingly fun mental effort in a marathon sitting, and I was all ready to claim the girl as my prize after whomping Medusa.

… And then they tell me, you’re only -just- done with Book 1.

There is a Book 2. (No, no, not the sequel Bookworm Adventures Deluxe 2, though there is one. But as in, in this singular game, Bookworm Adventures Deluxe, there is not just ten chapters of Book 1, there is also a Book 2, and presumably ten more chapters?!)

And I checked the main title screen and sure enough, some other feature only unlocks after you’ve completed Book 3.

TWO MORE BOOKS in this one game? Are you telling me it gets EVEN harder from here on up? And that I have another SIX hours to go?

I decidedly to mercifully end the marathon before my back killed me, but wow, I was impressed. It’s going to last me some time yet.

Book 2: Arabian Nights, here we come.

Whines and Cheese

aka a post on negative opinions and cheesy casual games

This post has been brewing (or should I say, fermenting, to massacre the metaphor) for a while now. Finally found the time in between RL stuff to write it.

Some time ago, Shintar from Going Commando and Psynister from Psynister’s Notebook mentioned that their enjoyment of a game they liked (SW: TOR in this case) were affected by the current Zeitgeist of negative opinion surrounding it.

Besides feeling like they need to make apologies or justifications for why they actually like something that is seemingly so unpopular, they perhaps get a little worried that this will affect the basic longevity of the MMO, such as the rate of new subscribers to it, the retention rate of existing subscribers, and the amount of developers that can be supported (cue news of Bioware layoffs.)

(I perfectly understand if what I’m going to say next makes you delete the automated linkback in your comments, so no hard feelings, guys.)

You know what? Screw all that.

There are 7 billion people in the world, many of whom don’t even have internet access, but of those who are on the World Wide Web, there is already plenty of diversity. Nobody will ever agree on anything.

Stop worrying about pageviews, stop worrying about perceived popularity or population in the game of your choice. It is okay to be unpopular. It is okay to like and play a game other people don’t like. Hell, SWTOR has a million subs. Most non-WoW MMOs are celebrating if they hit 400k, and most hover around 100-200k.

(Unless maximizing views is your goal, then by all means, find the most popular things to write about. Making gold, easy leveling, cheat codes, the meaning of life, and so on come to mind. And yeah, go for the games with the most mainstream appeal. Write about WoW, Starcraft, Diablo, LOL, DOTA, TF2, Minecraft – I guarantee you’ll get a ton of hits.)

Heck, I play a game with a population of 800 characters and declining, a good half of them probably alts. (No prizes for guessing which MMO that is.) Part of the reason why I write about it is to preserve its uniqueness for posterity.

In the final analysis, nothing lasts, but your memories and your love of game.

If you like something, you like something. You’re a blogger, tell us why.

To me, this feels like WoW newbie to other MMOs syndrome, or can I use WoW tourist to describe this? WoW players have had the luck and fortune to start playing their game at a time when EVERYONE and their mother (except for me!) was singing the praises and playing the living daylights out of their game.

Me, I saw the raid grind and bait-and-switch coming a mile off and chose not to participate. Did anyone listen then? Haha, no. So yeah, I shrugged, having made my distinctly unpopular opinion known, and figured, folks have to undergo the burnout cycle to know it, I’ll give you guys four years and check back in then, and waited…

More people think like me now, but it doesn’t mean that there aren’t people still deriving fun and enjoyment out of WoW and are happy to blog and share their experiences. That’s the whole point. It is okay to hold an unpopular opinion. It is also possible for something to be paradoxically good and bad at the same time, depending on your perspective and frame of reference.

And that’s what we want when we read your blog, your perspective and your frame of reference. Because only Tobold is Tobold, Zubon is Zubon, and so on. Syncaine, Bhagpuss, Melmoth, Gevlon, Spinks, Tesh, Sente, etc, etc. As I say these names, surely you’ll recognize at least some, and can link basic personalities and styles to their respective blogs.

So go ahead. Say it. My name is _____. I play ______. I like this game. And here’s why: ….

No apologies necessary.

My name is Jeromai. I think SWTOR is a steaming pile of generic WoW clone. I never hit max level in WoW, especially since they keep moving the goalposts. I refuse to put aside days of my life to raid for what is ultimately bytes and pixels. I want to form good memories and take beautiful screenshots with me when I move on from a game, and I believe that need/greed loot grinds and raid progression and the general community of the game would not contribute positive things towards those goals.

I also hate the Star Wars universe ever since I saw the trilogy, and the revamps and new episodes did not help that opinion at all, what with George Lucas’ ego and excessive CGI in every frame. The only guy I liked in the first movie, they killed at the end of it, leaving an oafish bumpkin as the main protagonist. Great.

I also liked the Ewoks, something most people who love the Star Wars universe detest. They made Return of the Jedi watchable, because all the other characters sucked. At least the walking teddy bears were funny and cute. Thankfully, I do not like the Gungans, so you can stop screaming now.

As much as I want to, this dislike of the setting makes it nigh impossible for me to play KOTOR, which is widely regarded as an excellent classic, let alone SWTOR, which is not. I tried and have barely got out of the intro sequence.

I also think light side, dark side choices are a lame prop and mechanic for so-called moral choices and roleplaying decisions. Are you truly doing anything meaningful by having decided beforehand, ok, this character is going to be the angelic Paragon and choosing all the good options by default (because that’s where the best loot and rewards come from, being one extreme or the other) vs the second run through of Ok, now it’s time to play the Evil Asshole and grabbing all the ‘evil’ options?

But you know what? These are all opinions. Mine, not yours. You are free to agree or disagree as you like. You can leave kudos or dissent in the comments, write about it in your blog or not read me at all because we are so diametrically dissimilar.

So go ahead. Tell us why you like or dislike something. Especially if you like something, tell us why.

Who knows, you may convince a few fence-sitters to try out your game, even if you may never sway the extremists.

And now for the cheese.

My name is Jeromai, and I have a very bad habit. When I’m procrastinating on RL deadlines, I stay away from MMOs because I cannot justify the amount of time spent just to log in, let alone play. But I have a not-so-secret-now love of cheesy casual games, that I buy for a buck fifty or so on Steam, which I am happy to fritter away small chunks of time with, in between attempting work.

During this recent Steam summer sale, I finally got around to buying the Popcap bundle after having dicked around with their demos and the full Plants vs Zombies on the iPad.

Yes, I deride SWTOR for being vapid mainstream crap, and I play even more vapid mainstream crap that only kids and housewives and people with no taste are supposed to enjoy.

There is no contradiction here.

Here’s why I like fooling around with cheesy casual games:

  • They (usually) take short amounts of time to play, meaning you can get a lot of gaming in for your time buck.
  • They focus on doing only one or a few things very well, leaving them a certain simplicity and elegance to their mechanics, which are also easily grasped.
  • Some of them are amazingly polished.
  • It’s extremely fun to find a diamond in the rough and go, hey, wow, these devs are on to something here.
  • All can be learned from, the bits I like, the parts I don’t, without much of the innate timesink grind of MMOs… though you have to watch out these days for timesinks put in to be skipped by paying (thanks, F2P model).
  • They don’t even make the excuse of having an endgame. When you’re done, you’re done. If you like it, buy the inevitable sequel, expansion or chapter 2.

My name is Jeromai. I play Bookworm Adventures Deluxe and I really love this game. Head on to the next post to find out why.

Where We Discover I Can’t Drive a Train (and Musings on Simulators)

Between some looming RL deadlines coming up in a week, Guild Wars 2 Final Beta Weekend, and Steam Summer sales, I find myself distracted from being able to put in sufficient time with The Secret World.

It’ll keep.

Meanwhile, here’s an interim post about me test driving Train Simulator 2012 – something I picked up for the hell of it while it was at 90% off.

Simulation games deeply fascinate me with their intense focus on simulating something as close to reality as possible. I also suck at pretty much all of them. Something about not reading the effing manual, I think, nor giving myself time enough to learn all the controls and nuances.

I used to be much better when I was younger – I recall hours and hours on the Amiga playing Silent Hunter, a submarine sim, or Gunship, a helicopter sim, or F-16 Combat Pilot. I think I even gave Flight Simulator a go, though I never quite saw the point in those days of playing something without any missiles. What? Just transport people around from place to place? How boring is that, like a glorified bus driver?

(Then I found a book about Flight Simulator adventures, and Threading The Seattle Space Needle sounded immensely fun…)

Of course, as a kid, the one thing I could never figure out was how to land the fucking airplane without crashing.

(Nor did the virtual Needle ever survive my attempts to fly through it.)

Oops.

I didn’t read the manual then in those days either.

Nor did I really understand all the stuff on the HUD besides basic radar and what weapons were selected. I pretty much just treated the games like toys and had my fun with them regardless, even if true sim grognards would be recoiling in horror.

That is, until an adult neighbor came by for a visit and by chance, I happened to be fooling around with a flight sim. He also happened to be a real pilot.

Intrigued by the realization that personal computers were actually sophisticated enough to run sims (presumably he was more used to practising with full scale aircraft simulator equipment), he asked for a turn with the joystick. While explaining what little keyboard controls I had discovered by trial and error to him, I confessed I had no clue what the hell all the other dials and knobs and lines were, nor could I ever master landing planes.

Laughing, he opened my eyes to the depth of the simulation, “it’s just like a real plane” and explained every single dial, altitude control and what not, while I attempted to pick my jaw off the floor and absorb even a smidgen of the information he was imparting so matter-of-factly. Then he promptly demonstrated landing the plane safe and soundly. He’d barely touched the game for five minutes.

Dayum. (Well, considering he landed real passenger planes as his job, he’d -better- know how to land the things smoothly without a hitch, but as a kid, it knocked my socks off at the time.)

And so began my unrequited love affair with simulator games. (I’d like to get to know them better and they slap me in the face, pretty much.)

First things first, this is -not- a review of Train Simulator 2012. Nor is it a first impressions post. It is the ‘first post’ diary of a complete and utter newbie to trains.

(They’re not really my thing. I go for tanks, battleships, gunships, submarines, infantry, airplanes, cars, trains, pretty much in that order. Mechs, spaceships and weird shit like farming or janitorial implements and construction equipment not included in the above rankings.)

The good news, I found, is that it actually has tutorial missions.

 

The first tutorial explains the simplified controls (another plus!), which basically consisted of a lever to work up and down (up for more acceleration, and down for deceleration) and a button to push to determine if you were going in forward or reverse.

Phew. I can handle that. Thanks for remembering the newbies, developers!

It explains the portion of the interface which shows where your train is in relation to the track, including the destination where you’re trying to stop at, the speed limit indicator, and passenger boarding.

Already, trying to predict and apply the appropriate acceleration/deceleration rate to stop a heavy mass like a train on what essentially seemed like a dime (but was in virtual reality, a station) was proving a challenge worthy of my nub lack of skillz.

I got through the first tutorial, albeit with some embarrassed reversing as I overshot the target, and a new appreciation for subway train drivers, even if most of the trains in my country are completely automated and driverless or run with ATO and a human operator for safety.

Having gotten more or less a grasp on the basics, I decided to try out a scenario with simplified controls for fun. There was a huge list of them, neatly sortable by the type of train or the route, and helpfully labeled with difficulty level and the expected time to complete (some of them running in the hours! Eep.)

Easy difficulty level went without saying for the noob. I was debating between the shortest two, 15 and 20 minutes, when a Coals to Newcastle mission caught my eye. 30 minutes.

Extremely tickled by the phrase, and the historical link, and with Sting’s Soul Cages and Island of Souls echoing in my brain, I went for it – though I was anticipating a good half hour of extreme boredom since this -was- easy difficulty level, on simplified controls.

I figured I could always try to roleplay it to kill time. (“Roleplay” is used in the sense of this article, which has an amazing paragraph on how you can even roleplay while playing Solitaire.

So how the heck do you roleplay while playing solitaire? There are no adventures or quests in a game of solitaire, no puzzles to solve, no dragons to slay, no princesses to rescue, no character attributes to build up – in short, none of the things we’d expect to find in an RPG. Well, in this type of situation, you have to roleplay in your mind. For example, you might put yourself in the role of a World War II Allied pilot who has been shot down and captured. Now, you’re in a prison camp. You’ve just been thrown into a solitary confinement cell for complaining about not getting enough food. It’s pretty dark, but a bit of light does manage to get in through the small slit window. And when the guards threw you in, they were laughing too hard or they were too lazy to bother searching you. As the result of this great stroke of luck, they didn’t find the dog- eared deck of playing cards that was in your pocket when they came for you. So you play solitaire. You play quietly so as not to alert the guards. And you play with a quiet desperation, not merely to entertain yourself, but to stave off the pangs of hunger – you’re getting even less to eat now – and to maintain your sanity.)

The briefing sets you in the mood already. It’s winter, there’s strikes happening all over, a backlog of freight to clear, and your job is to haul a load of coal to be transferred to a waiting ship. On time, or you won’t have a loading bay to unload in.

Turns out my ignorance of all things train-related yielded moments of skin-crawling anxiety and imaginary terror, mixed in with relatively bored uneventfulness.

I managed to get started okay, accelerating slowly, then fast, listening to the engine make strange noises in reaction and wondering if I was doing anything I shouldn’t. Then I debated with myself on the appropriate speed to maintain and settled on approaching as close to the speed limit as possible.

The glorious coal payload, and accelerating from 10.3mph to approach the 25mph speed limit. Gee, this is going to take a while…
Then the speed limit changed suddenly from 25 to 40. Eh? Er, okay, I’ll go faster.
Then to 85. Oooh er, should I be going that fast? What if I need to stop this thing?!

In retrospect, and as explained by the -second- tutorial mission, the one with the advanced train controls, the speed limits are actually indicated on the interface, highlighted in yellow. But I didn’t realize it then. I just noticed the speed limit changing at seemingly unpredictable moments.

Then there were the lights. The railway signal lights, that is. Remember, I know next to nothing about trains.

The first few lights I passed were facing away from me, but still glowing green. Okay, presumably those don’t apply to me. They must be for other trains and are just scenic ambience.

Then I passed some that were facing me, and green. Okay, green means go, presumably, just like normal traffic. But oh my god, what if they turn red, what do I do, what do I do, this train is moving damn fast, I hope there’s no railroad crossing traffic or an oncoming train switching rails, because it’s not going to be pretty with a noob at the controls. Come on, this is -easy- difficulty level, surely they won’t include such things until intermediate or hard, right?

Adding confusion to the neurotic worrying was the fact that as my train passed the railway signal, they changed from green to red. Oh god, does that mean I should have stopped? Or maybe they’re just indicating that my train is passing…

Wait, that one is yellow, do I slow down, am I supposed to slow down? Hang on, that’s hanging over another rail, there’s one nearer to my rail that is green.

After a while of this, it did seem like all the signals were green, and I decided not to worry about something that I probably didn’t have the current capacity to react to, anyway.

The rest of the journey went by in a mind-numbing haze, punctuated by me humming snippets of the Soul Cages, taking screenshots of passing landmarks, and experimenting with camera views as I succumbed to “What does this button do?” temptation.

Coupling view. Train tracks…passing… fast… Ulp.
I can see my house from here! (Nah, not really.)

At last, after numerous accelerations and decelerations, I reached the target yard. Wherein I discovered that I had no clue how to uncouple the coal wagons, nor where precisely I should be leaving them, and after a bunch of trial-and-error clicks, managed to decouple my engine from the entire string of wagons.

Alas, that didn’t seem to end the scenario – presumably because I was only supposed to leave specific numbered wagons, but had no clue how – and I ended up trundling my lone engine up the track further to no avail. Changed my mind as the 7.50 deadline was approaching, and went into reverse.

The plan was to back up to the abandoned coal wagons and attempt re-hitching and further trial and error. But having only two minutes on the clock made me a tide… hasty.

Going at way too fast a speed to brake appropriately (or rather the speed of a car going what, 30mph?), I careened into the stationary coal wagons and my engine swayed precariously, and promptly derailed.

ROFL. Oops.

Well, that’s one way to bring up the scenario end screen.

On checking the tutorial mission list, apparently How to handle freight is numbered tutorial mission 4, though number 3 is not currently showing.

I decided to sit through number 2 first, the advanced train controls, which was slightly more complex with a throttle, brake, and forward/reverse controls.

Alas, I overshot my passenger stop and failed the tutorial, and decided to stop there for the night. Until next time.

 

Learning the Metagame – Personal First Thoughts

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.