31 January 2012

Worth a Watch: On Gaming Addiction

This link is courtesy of WoW Insider, which posted it on their page a few days back.  It is an amateur documentary about gaming addiction and specifically World of Warcraft.  I'm just going to offer a few brief comments and then you can check it out for yourself, but I really do like this one.  I like it because it does not do either of the two things that most commentaries on gaming addiction do.  Most of the time when you read/see a story on this topic, it is either all about how gaming is "the devil" and it will destroy us all, or it is an endless "sob story" about how gaming ruined someone's life.  And while the author here definitely highlights the negative ways WoW impacted his life, at no point does he make you try and feel sorry for him, or blame anyone else for his problems. 

Ultimately, people who are vulnerable to addictive behaviors are vulnerable to all kinds of addictive behaviors.  Gaming in general, or MMO gaming in particular, are no better or worse in this regard.  They can be just as potentially destructive as any other.  To vilify gaming as more dangerous than say drinking, or smoking, or gambling is absurd.  It is a potential addiction like any other and people who are vulnerable to such things should stay away.  So I think this particular video is very even-handed in its approach and its message.  I definitely think it is worth checking out.  Let me know what you thought of it.

In Real Life- Documentary on WoW Addiction

30 January 2012

Life at Fifty in SW:TOR

So I mentioned last week that I reached the level cap in Star Wars: The Old Republic on one of my characters, specifically my Bounty Hunter.  Well immediately after hitting the big 5-0 I logged out and pretty much didn't touch him for the better part of a week.  I spent time on all my various alts, even tried to level my Smuggler for a bit (still completely frustrating.)  Right now I think it'll either be my Jedi Sentinel or Sith Juggernaut that I focus on next, but that's a topic for another post.  No what I want to talk about today is my plan to give the SW:TOR endgame a fair shake and see what life is really like for a level capped character in the game.

For the next week, I plan to play my Bounty Hunter almost exclusively.  I'll pop onto my alts for a space mission or two, or to run some missions for my companions, but the majority of my actual game time I will invest in my Hunter.  In preparation for this, I spent this past weekend finishing off the Corellia story arc and my class quest.  Without spoiling it for anyone, I will say two things in general.  First, the conclusion to the class story is pretty satisfying.  It felt like a genuine conclusion to the story being told, while at the same time leaving enough "hanging" that picking it up won't be a problem.  And second, I would be very curious to see how Corellia plays out for the Republic.  This planet isn't a case of Taris/Balmorra.  There is one planet and it is the same for both factions.  So... how does Bioware reconcile the Imperial story with the Republic one here?  I'd really like to find out.

But with that accomplished, I am in a better position to focus on the endgame content without having to worry about those "loose ends."  So what is there to do at 50 right now?  Well, let's put aside PvP right off the bat.  As I've said before in this blog, I don't like PvP.  I have nothing against the people who do and I hope that games try to present enjoyable PvP scenarios for them, but personally it just isn't my cup of tea.  Raiding is also not on the table, but for different reasons.  I am still (unfortunately) guildless, and with my work schedule picking up, it is unlikely I would be able to set aside the "blocks" of time that organized raiding would require.  That leaves three things that I can see myself working on this week.

Daily Quests

On a personal note, I find the development of daily quests interesting.  When I first started playing MMO's six years ago, there wasn't a concept like this out there... at least not in the games that I was playing.  Yes there were things that you would do on a regular, even daily basis, but there really wasn't a formal "structure" for it like there is now.  At a glance, SW:TOR's take on dailies appears pretty similar to World of Warcraft.  Although there are no factions and associated reputations like in WoW, there is a "currency grind" that has you working towards purchasable rewards.  SW:TOR has two major hubs for its daily activities, not counting the Fleet hub.  There is one set of dailies on the planet Belsavis, and another on Ilum.  I have begun working on unlocking the Belsavis series.  I want to do that first before traveling to Ilum.  So this will probably be what I concentrate on most early in the week. 

Flashpoints (Regular and Hardmode)

I would really, really like to see more of SW:TOR's Flashpoints and I am trying to stay positive on this issue.  But I am not optimistic in terms of how many (if any) I will get to do this week.  On top of not having a guild, I am also faced with the problem of being a DPS spec rather than a tank or healer.  And as everyone who plays an MMO knows, DPS is a dime a dozen, especially at endgame.  This is not how I anticipated reaching the endgame at first.  My plan was for my healing spec'd Smuggler to be my first 50.  But as that turned out not to be the case, it is going to be that much more difficult for me to find Flashpoint groups on this character.  One option I do have is changing my Bounty Hunter to his healing tree.  It is the other tree Mercenaries have access to.  So if I really do want to see Flashpoints, that may be what I have to do.  I am reluctant though due to the lack of dual spec in the game and I don't want to have to pay to constantly switch between healing and damage to do my dailies and other activities.


I am intrigued by the possibilities of SW:TOR's crafting system.  I really like the concept of reverse engineering to create more powerful items, and the ability to create mods to improve existing gear.  That said, it is a system I have not really taken advantage of as yet.  As I was leveling, I focused my efforts on raising my crafting skills as efficiently as possible.  I didn't see the point in trying to reverse engineer something like Reflex Armoring 2 when there are twenty other better versions to make.  But now that I am at the top end, it is time to revisit this and start working on obtaining the improved designs of the best mods and armor.  Additionally, I have some very nice cosmetic gear sitting in my cargo hold that just need the right mods to be made into some deadly weapons.  I am looking forward to spending time on this as a way to improve my character independent of things like gear drops in instances.

Unless something significant happens this week, I don't plan on posting anything more on SW:TOR until this time next week.  I want to give this a totally fair shake and as honest an effort as possible.  So next Monday, I'll sum up what I think of the SW:TOR endgame, or at least those portions of it that I concentrated on. 

29 January 2012

It's the Neeeeeeeeeeeeeeeeeews!

It's that time of week again, so let's recap some of the big news to hit the MMO world in the past week.  We're going to go with four stories this week as one of these slipped in at the very last second last week and I didn't talk about it then.  So we'll start off with that one.

Senior Producer on Diablo 3 Leaves Blizzard

This one dropped late last weekend and so I didn't have time to get it in on that post, but this is obviously big news.  Steve Parker took to his Twitter to announce that he was leaving Blizzard and Diablo 3.  This at the same time as major revisions are still being made to D3 currently in its closed beta phase.  The "conspiracy theories" immediately began to fly about him being pushed out by "higher ups" at Activision-Blizzard, executives wanting to "dumb down" the game, etc.  Frankly I'm not sure how you "dumb down" a dungeon crawler.  They aren't exactly highly intellectual games to begin with.  Of course, neither are most MMO's (unless your name is EVE or Star Trek: Online,) but for some people that's where the fun is.

It is always big news when a senior figure steps away from a game, especially a high profile game from a high profile publisher.  But personally, I wouldn't look too deeply into this one.  It sounds like both parties left on good terms, and I'm guessing Parker is just looking for his next opportunity, or already has one lined up.  You typically don't get far in this industry (or any other for that matter) by burning bridges and leaving enemies behind you.  So unless I hear differently, I'm just going to assume that Parker thought he had accomplished all he could with D3 and Blizzard, and is moving on to other things. 

No BlizzCon in 2012 

For all those who were planning to stay up all hours of the night so they could get in the virtual line to purchase BlizzCon tickets, I have bad news... there will be no BlizzCon in 2012.  Citing all their big releases scheduled for this year, Blizzard announced that they would not be holding their usual annual convention for the first time since 2007.  I can definitely see why they would be busy.  They have releases scheduled for all three of their major franchises this year; Heart of the Swarm for Starcraft, Mists of Pandaria for Warcraft, and the aforementioned Diablo 3.  And on top of all that you have the still mysterious Project Titan MMO.  So yeah, I can see how they will be a little busy.

That said, I am curious how they plan to generate interest and show off their products without a BlizzCon.  Traditionally Blizzard takes the "Apple approach" and avoids the major industry trade shows in favor of displaying their products at BlizzCon where they have the show all to themselves.  Will we see an increased Blizzard presence at E3 this year?  Is there some other venue where they can show off their stuff?  They are still holding what they are calling the "Battle.net World Championship" and so there might be a bit of "advertising" going on there.  And let's be honest, Blizzard doesn't exactly need to hype their own stuff.  Plenty of people are already excited for these games.  But it does make one wonder a bit.

NCSoft Sues to Prevent TERA Launch 

This story may or may not qualify as "big news" depending on your level of interest in the upcoming TERA MMO.  NCSoft, a major MMO publisher in both Asia and Western markets, has filed a lawsuit seeking to prevent the launch of TERA in the US and Europe.  They already sought a similar injunction in Korea and while they did receive some damages, they could not prevent the release of the game itself.  So now they are trying again to prevent its broader release.  In essence, NCSoft is arguing that the creators of TERA stole the assets the game is based on from NCSoft and their work on what was to be Lineage 3TERA's Korean creators, Bluehole Studios, was founded by former NCSoft employees, so the accusation itself is not outside the realm of possibility.

If you are a fan of TERA and looking forward to it, this is obviously big news because it could postpone the game indefinitely until the legal situation is resolved.  And if the Interplay/Bethesda showdown proved anything, it is that these battles can drag out a long time and be very contentious.  Not having any prior knowledge of this case, I cannot speculate on which way I think it will go or how long it might take to resolve.  I'm guessing that En Masse (the US/EU publisher for the game) can successfully argue that a court ordered delay would cause them significant economic damages and so they will be allowed to launch while the litigation is pending.  Then if NCSoft ultimately wins, they can be paid back after the fact.  But that's just my guess.

Guild Wars 2 will Launch in 2012... no really... we mean it this time! 

This game was beginning to approach Duke Nukem Forever territory in terms of being delayed, but ArenaNet came out this week and confirmed that Guild Wars 2 WILL in fact launch in 2012.   There was much rejoicing from almost every corner of the MMO blogosphere as many industry followers are expecting this game to redefine or save the genre itself.  And I have to ask at this point, why does GW2 get a "pass" on being delayed over, and over, and over again while Star Wars: The Old Republic got crapped on every time it got pushed back?  GW2 has been "in the pipe" far longer and still hasn't seen the light of day, yet no one really seems to get on ArenaNet's case for it. 

In any case, we will finally see this year whether this game will be the "savior" that many are saying that it will be.  Yes I am a bit harsh on this one, but it is not because I don't want it to be successful.  The original Guild Wars is how I got started in MMO's and I am all for another healthy contender in the marketplace.  But frankly I find all the expectations around this game to be too much.  The higher the expectations go, the bigger the letdown is going to be when it fails to meet them.  And I hate to break it to you, but it IS going to fail to meet them fully.  No game can possibly live up to what GW2 is being built into by its most ardent supporters.  They would really do themselves, and the game itself, a favor by tempering their expectations somewhat.

Did I miss a story that was big to you?  Disagree with my point of view?  Let me know, and enjoy the rest of your weekend!

27 January 2012

Production vs. Consumption

Ok this isn't exactly a new or groundbreaking topic.  I'm sure you have read commentaries on "Themepark vs. Sandbox" on a dozen different blogs.  But somebody made a comment to me recently that instantly made me think about this issue and so I thought I would offer my perspective based on what this person had to say.  We were talking about higher education and they said, "The purpose of post-baccalaureate (Masters, Doctorate) programs is to teach students to be producers of information rather than consumers of it."  The argument being that at these higher levels the aim should be to produce new concepts rather than simply informing yourself about current ones.  How does this apply to MMO's?  Well in a nutshell, themepark MMO's encourage us to be consumers of content whereas sandbox MMO's encourage us to be producers of it.  And while that sounds fairly straightforward, I think when you consider the implication of that statement, you can understand why one of these formats has become much more popular than the other.

My Kingdom is my Castle- Life in the Sandbox 

In the interest of full disclosure, I will confess that I am personally not a huge supporter of "sandbox" style MMO's.  I don't think that fact will affect my commentary here, but I am a big believer in being honest with my audience, so I wanted to put that out front.  That said... the general principle behind the sandbox MMO is that the game itself only provides a basic framework and ground rules for the operation of the game.  The game does not really direct you to do anything in particular.  You are free to do pretty much anything you want to do, within those basic parameters the game establishes.  Killers can kill, builders can build, explorers can explore and each generally can find a certain level of "reward" for their chosen activity.   The game does not provide content for the players to experience, by and large.  Oh almost every sandbox MMO has a few quests and such, but they are typically few and can be totally ignored unless you choose to complete them.

In this style of game the players are expected to produce their own "content."  Now in most cases this does not mean that the players themselves write quests, hand out rewards, or build dungeons (although there are some examples of where this is possible.)  But what it means in almost all cases is the players create the things that other players will interact with in the game world, and these creations become the basis for the game itself.  Players build towns.  Players assemble armies or fleets.  Players organize alliances and empires.  Players fight wars and make peace.  All these things happen at the player's direction, not because a developer created the scenario.  In the end, the game is only what the players make of it, not the vision of a developer.

Thrills, Chills, and Spills-  Take me to the Themepark 

By contrast, the "themepark" style MMO operates on the entirely opposite principle.  In this game, almost all the content is created by the developers and presented to the players for their use.  All in game activities are designed by the developers for the players.  There is very little for a player to do in this sort of game outside of those activities provided.  Now that is not to say that there are fewer things to do, far from it.  A well designed, well supported themepark will necessarily provide different kinds of activities to suit different players and their interests.  This would include quests and other content to be completed alone, small group content such as dungeons, large group content such as raids, PvP scenarios such as battleground or arenas, crafting systems, etc.  There remains a wide variety of activities and things to accomplish.  The only difference is those activities are created by someone else for your use, not at your own direction.

From a "technical perspective," there is no reason to consider one of these formats superior to the other.  They both provide certain opportunities.  They both provide certain benefits.  And they both have certain drawbacks.  Individual players are going to find one preferable to the other based on their own desires and motivations.  And that is where we come full circle to the comment that started me thinking on this.

We're here to have FUN! 

Returning to the concept of "production vs. consumption," I think we can see why the "themepark" has become the most popular format of current MMO's.  It really comes down to what people see as fun.  Remember that we are talking about a form of recreation.  Video games are about having fun, entertainment, relaxation.  For the vast majority of people, this means letting someone else do the "hard work" and just going along for the ride.  It means popping in that copy of Mass Effect and helping Commander Shepard save the galaxy.  It means turning on Call of Duty and wasting some terrorists.  It means playing a game of Madden 2012 with a buddy and running up the score on them.  In all of these cases, we are presented with a scenario created by someone else and we play it out for our own entertainment. 

The "sandbox" asks us to do a great deal more of the work involved in creating that entertainment.  Now for some people this is not a problem, and in fact they find it more entertaining and more relaxing than playing someone else's story.  But the reality is that these individuals are a small minority.  Most people are not interested in investing that much "work" in their recreation.  They don't want to write the story, they just want to experience it.  This is why I think the comment about production vs. consumption is indicative of the current state of MMO's.  The average MMO player is perfectly happy being a consumer of content.  They are not interested in being a producer of it.

While I said I was not a supporter of sandboxes, this is mostly because I am one of those that does not want to expend so much energy to "create" my own entertainment.  I am a very creative person, but in my experience most sandboxes are tedious in their presentation requiring huge grind type activities to actually produce anything.  However, I would agree with the assertion that sandboxes are more in the "spirit" of what an MMO is supposed to be.  A lot of people forget the second half of the full abbreviation... MMO-RPG, role playing game.  These games are supposed to be about us, about our stories, our achievements.  How can that be true when each player is doing the same things for the same reasons?  So I sympathize with the sandbox supporters in that themeparks do not allow them to tell their own "stories."

But this is why sandboxes are not commercially successful, at least not in the US/EU markets.  The number of people willing to invest the time and effort in creating their own content is small.  And that is the reality that sandbox supporters need to acknowledge.  They are loud and they are vocal (as many of The Informed are) but they are very few.  What I don't understand is why they subscribe/play games such as World of Warcraft or Star Wars: The Old Republic and complain constantly that those games aren't what they want them to be.  It's like ordering a chicken breast and complaining that it isn't a pork chop.  You knew it was chicken when you ordered it.  Complaining after the fact won't change it.  Why make yourself (and others) miserable by stating the obvious?  I'm finding this a lot in SW:TOR right now as all the refugees from the now defunct Star Wars: Galaxies are trying to get their Star Wars "fix" in SW:TOR despite the fact that it is a pure themepark and everybody knows it.

Unless there is some vast untapped source of people who are willing to invest the time in creating their own stories, it is unlikely that we will ever see a sandbox MMO reach the same levels of popularity as the biggest of the themeparks like WoW, SW:TOR, or RIFT.  But again, this is not a value judgement of one format over the other.  Themeparks are not superior in any way except that their basic premise appeals to more people on a much broader basis.  The fundamental problem sandboxes face is there really isn't anything they can do to increase their appeal.  Their basic premise only works for a select few, and if you alter that premise, then it really isn't a sandbox at all anymore.

25 January 2012

Character Update and Legacy Questions

Just a small post today to update a couple of quick things.  I started back to work today so the semi-daily postings that I have been up to for the past few weeks may slow down a bit in regularity.  I will try and get something up every other day or so, but obviously real life priorities have to take precedence.  Somewhat related to that, I accidentally posted what I had intended to be today's post yesterday, so that's why I only have a small one to make today.  Just forgot to hit the "schedule" button before I saved the draft.  Oh well, nobody's perfect. 

So as far as today goes I just want to do two quick things.  First, an update on my characters as I am still searching for a guild in Star Wars: The Old Republic.  I'm not going to recap all the storylines, but I will link to that post if you haven't read it and would like to.  But I would like to update their levels to keep an accurate picture of where they are.  Again I am searching for a guild that is active in role-play as well as small-group (Flashpoints) activities.  Raiding may be possible, so long as there is no rigid schedule.  My real life commitments simply prevent that.

Republic Characters (Vrook Lamar server, West Coast/RP)

Zintee:  Smuggler, Scoundrel/Sawbones-  Level 38 (Healer)
Delarre:  Jedi Counselor, Shadow/Kinetic Combat-  Level 22 (Tank)
Zinto:  Jedi Knight, Sentinel/Combat-  Level 12 (Melee DPS)
Jendia:  Trooper, Commando/Gunnery-  Level 12 (Ranged DPS)

Imperial Characters (Begeren Colony server, West Coast/RP)

Kalgrien:  Bounty Hunter, Mercenary/Arsenal-  Level 50 (Ranged DPS)
Furion:  Sith Warrior, Juggernaut/Immortal-  Level 22 (Tank)
Raefeli:  Sith Inquisitor, Sorceror/Corruption-  Level 18 (Healer)
Cinti:  Imperial Agent, Sniper/Marksmanship-  Level 16 (Ranged DPS)

While I appreciate the need to designate "mains" versus "alts" for the purpose of organization and such, each group of characters is a package deal.  You recruit me, you get all of them.  I have no problem declaring a "main" and focusing on it, but I will be jumping between characters to experience the stories and take advantage of their different crafting skills.  So if you are in a guild on one of those servers and you might be interested in me, here's the link to the full background post on my characters.

The other thing I wanted to do is somewhat related, and that's comment on an article I came across on the issue of mains and alts in SW:TOR.  The author is complaining about the Legacy System in the game and how it seeks to incentivise players to reroll and play alt characters rather than focus on a single main character.  Essentially he is afraid that the Legacy bonuses will be significant enough that anyone who does focus on a single character and has no alts will be at a disadvantage.  On the one hand I can see where he is coming from.  Prior to SW:TOR I wasn't much of an "alt" player myself.  In both World of Warcraft and RIFT I focused exclusively on a single character at a time.  I didn't even really engage in things like crafting alts.  I can certainly see the value in developing and focusing on a single character.  You learn to play it well.  You invest in their equipment and performance.  You are better at your "job."

On the other hand, I can see where Bioware is coming from.  They invested a significant amount of time and effort into creating individual storylines for each class.  If you play only one class exclusively, you are missing out on the other seven stories.  We always complain when talking about endgame content that developers should not focus time and effort on content that only a "small percentage" of the players will see, arguing that focused and difficult raids are a waste of developer effort.  Well, in a way this is no different.  Bioware did not want it's resources "wasted" by having players only experience one of the eight stories they crafted.  So... they will "bribe" us with shinies to play other stories. 

Personally I've always believed that the Legacy System will be something akin to an "Alternate Advancement" system that is shared between all your characters on a server.  I'm picturing something like RIFT's planar attunement system in that the bonuses acquired will be fairly minor in the broad scheme of things... a point of this stat here, a point of that stat there, a mount speed increase perhaps, or XP bonuses, etc.  And then there will be added character creation options, new races and so forth, again with the goal of encouraging the creation of more alts.  I don't see Bioware going the route of making Legacy bonuses so powerful that they become mandatory in order for a character to reach full potential.  That doesn't seem like a winning "strategy" in the long term, in my opinion.

But we shall see.  This is actually one of the features I am really looking forward to seeing the full "reveal" on.

24 January 2012

Long Lost Cousins?

Lately I have been wondering if some other prominent MMO bloggers are not in fact long lost cousins of mine.  To a degree, it is reassuring to see that I am not the only one thinking some of the things that I am.  We all desire to have our opinions validated to a certain degree.  It is nice to know we aren't "crazy" when we find someone else saying some of the same things that we are.  But when talking about a subject that by its very nature involves the attitudes and opinions of so many different people, as MMO's do, it is even more important to try and understand all the different points of view that can exist around you.  Last week I made a post about how the people I called "The Informed," (MMO bloggers, forum writers, podcasters, etc.) may be the loudest portion of the MMO community, we are also the smallest, and our opinions ultimately don't mean much to the "Powers that Be" compared to the "silent majority."

Well today Rohan echoed those sentiments in discussing some upcoming changes to the latest batch of World of Warcraft raid content.  His points about the reasoning behind the changes and Blizzard's reaction to Cataclysm are spot on.  I was among those who believed Wrath of the Lich King was too easy.  I was among those who craved a return to Burning Crusade type heroics and attunement chains.  I was among those who wanted raid content to actually be difficult again.  And ultimately... I was among those two million lost subscribers.  I quit Cataclysm and WoW less than three months after the expansion's release. 

Consider that for just a moment.  Blizzard gave me everything I (and the rest of The Informed) wanted and I quit anyway.  Not only did I quit, but millions of others, some Informed some not, quit also.  Consider also that Wrath was WoW at its height in terms of total population and subscriber numbers.  Put those facts together, and what conclusion is Blizzard going to come to?  Are they going to keep listening to us?  The Informed?  Are they going to create harder content?  Bigger barriers?  More obstacles?  Heck no.  They are going to go back to what was most successful, and that was the Wrath model.

In the original post from Kurn that Rohan is commenting on, Kurn complains that Blizzard is ignoring its "older players," (ie. The Informed.)  He is absolutely right, they are ignoring us.  And Rohan is absolutely right in that they should ignore us.  What has listening to us got them?  Lower subscriber numbers and an upset community.  The bottom line is this:

The modern MMO in 2012 is NOT designed for the MMO player of 2004.

The reality that we, The Informed, need to accept is that mainstream MMO's are no longer designed with us in mind.  The kinds of mechanics we want, the types of gameplay we enjoy, are not what designers are basing their games on.  Why?  Simple.  There is no money in it.  Big name companies and big name producers are not going to be content with a game that has ten thousand, or even a hundred thousand subscribers.  They are aiming for millions.  Niche games that meet the needs of The Informed do not meet that economic model.   As I have commented on before, THIS is the true legacy of World of Warcraft.  It changed the "population" of MMO players such that the needs of people like The Informed simply no longer matter to a company like Blizzard, or EA/Bioware, or Trion, or any other major MMO developer.

Is there room for a game that would suit the needs of The Informed in the MMO marketplace?  Certainly.  But it will not be a big budget, AAA-type title.  It will be a smaller game.  It will be a "labor of love."  It will be something produced by a smaller company with lesser ambitions (and independent funding.)  I know many of The Informed are pinning their hopes and dreams on the upcoming Guild Wars 2, and while it would be great if it delivered on everything people think it will, I'm afraid they are just lining up for more disappointment.  We may be loud, we may be angry, but we are also few.  No one is likely to give us the things we want any time soon.

Super Bowl Oddsmaking Stupidity

Ok this has been annoying me since I first saw this story yesterday so I just have to say something about it or it will drive me nuts.  This is totally unrelated to gaming or MMO's, so if sports ain't your thing, move along and wait for tomorrow's post.  What kind of drugs are they on in Vegas to have the Patriots as favored over the Giants?  Don't get me wrong, I am a huge fan of Tom Brady, and so by extension the Patriots, and will be pulling for them to win this Super Bowl.  But if you asked me to put money on it?  If you asked me who I think will win, not who I want to win?  I don't see who in their right mind could say with a straight face that the Patriots are more likely to win this game than the Giants.  Let's just go through the simple reasons right off the top of my head.

1)  The Giants already beat the Patriots head-to-head this year.

2)  Prior to the AFC Championship game, the Patriots had not even beat ANY team with a winning record this year, and they had to get very lucky to beat the Ravens.

3)  And while it was several years in the past, let's not forget it was these Giants who ended the Patriots hope for the first 19-0 season in NFL history, defeating them in the Super Bowl in 2007. 

And those are just the simple ones.  We could go on about how the Giants are winning tough road playoff games against much better competition while the Patriots beat up a team that didn't deserve to be in the playoffs (The Broncos) and lucked out against the Ravens.  We could talk about the Giants being able to do the one thing that really throws Brady off his game, getting pressure without having to blitz.  We could talk about how Eli Manning and the Giants wide receivers should be able to abuse a Patriots secondary that gave up yards by the bucket this year.  Put it all together and I simply see no logical explanation for the Giants being underdogs here.

But the oddsmakers and the "powers that be" at the NFL and network offices have to be happy with this one.  This was probably the best potential match-up from a "marketing" point of view in the playoffs.  A "Harbaugh Bowl" between the Ravens and 49ers would have been mildly interesting, but this New York/New England, Brady/Manning rivalry is guaranteed to deliver the big bucks.  How much do you think it would bug big brother Peyton if little Eli got a second ring and he likely never will?  While I despise the entire Manning family, I can't help but smile a little at that potential scenario.  But in spite of it all, I will be rooting for Darth Belichick and his golden haired apprentice Lord Brady.  And while the oddsmakers say I'm already picking the favorite, I know better.  This is going to be a tough fight for the Patriots.

23 January 2012

My First to 50

This weekend I reached the level cap with my first character in Star Wars: The Old Republic.  Considering I did not start playing this character seriously until just after Christmas, for all intents and purposes this was accomplished in about three weeks, but we'll be generous and call it four.  While I was "on vacation" for much of that time, I did not have as unlimited playtime as you would think.  It was still probably more than I will have when I get back to work this week, but it's not as if I was sitting at my computer playing SW:TOR twenty-four hours a day.  But let's break down just what this means both for this individual character, and my long-term feelings about the game right now.

As you can see from the second screenshot, I hit level 50 in just over five days "played."  In total, it took me about 130 hours of game time to reach the cap.  While a few of those hours were spent "sitting around the forge" doing crafting while I was semi-AFK, I would say at least 120 hours of active time was spent.  And this was done almost entirely through "solo" content.  As I mentioned in other posts, I did not do any Heroic quests after about level 20, and was unable to complete a Flashpoint after about the same time.  So for at least two-thirds of the leveling process, every bit of experience was earned solo.  I also reached the cap without fully completing my class story.  I was on Corellia when I hit 50, but I had just barely started the planet.  In fact I had not even completed the first step of my class quest on the planet when I hit 50.  So I still have a bit to do in that regard also. 

To sum it up, I "consumed" most of the solo leveling content.  I skipped a couple of the "Bonus" chains and bypassed the non-class quests on a couple planets, but for the most part I used all the content presented to me that could be completed alone.  In contrast, I used virtually none of the group based content.  I did a few Heroic quests on Dromund Kaas and Nar Shaddaa, but I solo'd the ones on Hutta and didn't even try any after Nar Shaddaa.  Similarly, I completed no Flashpoint after Athiss.  So to compare my 130 hours with Bioware's claim of 200 hours of content per character... well I would call it a bit of an exaggeration.  Even if I had done the group content I skipped, it would have pushed me to the cap faster, so it wouldn't really increase the "time to cap" number.  Overall there are two conclusions to be reached based on this experience.

1)  It is possible to reach the level cap entirely solo without difficulty.

2)  Grouping in SW:TOR without a guild is tedious and unsatisfying.

While no one ever thought that SW:TOR would require grouping to level, I was surprised at the overall ease of the process.  Yes occasionally you will come across a difficult quest to complete, but after a messy death, you usually pick up the "trick" fairly quickly.  And for all the emphasis on story and the "journey" rather than the destination, there is little incentive for you to slow down the process.  In fact sometimes you find yourself "racing" from one quest to the next in order to get to the next part of your class story.  On the one hand that means the story is probably pretty good, but on the other it means that you find yourself at the "end" faster than you might anticipate.

As far as grouping goes... SW:TOR continues to really, really disappoint me.  Part of this I blame on the game, but part is the players as well.  As I mentioned over the weekend, the social tools within the game itself are a total, complete joke.  But I'm thinking that the players themselves are just as much to blame.  It feels like the vast majority of people playing SW:TOR are essentially playing it alone.  It may as well be Knights of the Old Republic 3 with Steam chat, because that's as much as people interact with one another.  Chat channels are virtually silent.  The only places with any kind of chatter are the Fleet hub and the capital planets.  Anything outside of that is almost entirely dead.  I sometimes wonder if half the people around me are even aware this is an MMO and are just "stuck" in their own world.

I honestly don't know where I stand with SW:TOR going forward right now.  I'm more inclined to switch to another character than I am to begin the "daily quest/instance" grind for gear and tokens at max level.  I wasn't expecting any kind of revelation at 50.  I knew that was what was waiting for me, but I also expected to care a bit more about investing a character in the process.  Right now... I don't.  Similarly I don't know how much I really want to invest in SW:TOR itself.  If I cannot find a guild soon, or if EA/Bioware doesn't so something to making grouping more efficient, right now I see myself walking away come April.  I'm sure I can polish off most of the unique class stories by then.  There just isn't anything else to hold me in unless something emerges on the social front.  That is why we play MMO's after all... or at least, that's why I play them.

22 January 2012

It's all News to Me

Welcome to the second installment of my weekly news feature.  I hope you're finding this a useful way to catch up with some of the bigger stories from around the MMO industry.  For the time being I am going to stick with the "Top 3" format as that seems to work pretty well.  Obviously if a given week has more (or less) stories of significance, we can alter things accordingly.  But for now, three seems like a good baseline to start each article from.  And so without further ado, on with the news!

EA/Bioware Ride the SW:TOR Roller Coaster

Boy it has been a heck of a week for the embattled Star Wars: The Old Republic.  Their first major content patch gets delayed.  The "unsubscribe" option disappears from their website for some.  Major PvP exploits are exposed when the content patch finally does go live.  But the aspect of this story I really want to draw your attention to comes from the financial world.  This blurb from Marketwatch sums up exactly why the MMO industry has become so stagnant.  SW:TOR is a month old.  But it has already been declared a failure in some quarters, and that declaration is already having concrete economic impacts.  No longer to game developers or publishers have the "luxury" of improving their games.  No, now you must be perfect from Day 1 or you are "dead on arrival."

The implications of this really bother me.  I'm no "fanboi" for SW:TOR.  If you've been reading my commentary, you know I have serious concerns and dislikes with the game.  But at the same time, it deserves a fair shot.  It deserves time to improve, to address its weaknesses, to add features.  And it is far from a bad game.  It has significant strengths and advantages that, given time, could round out into a fantastic MMO.  But what stories like this tell me is that games will no longer be given that chance.  If EA/Bioware can't report millions of subscribers and millions more in box sales, the investors will "pull the plug" in a figurative sense.  Companies will take even fewer risks.  Innovation will continue to be stifled in favor of tried and true alternatives.  And as MMO players, we will be left with essentially nothing but "WoW clones" on the one hand, and "Pay-to-win cash shops" on the other.  Keep a close eye on this one.  The success or failure of SW:TOR could cause a "great disturbance in the Force."

(Incidentally, Marketwatch did post a follow up article in which other investors defend EA/Bioware and SW:TOR.  So thankfully not everybody is rushing to judgment so quickly on this one.)

Diablo 3 no Closer to Launch?

Things have been relatively quiet on the Blizzard front lately, but this story regarding Diablo 3 caught my attention this week.  Apparently Blizzard is still making large, sweeping changes to many of the D3 game mechanics.  Now I'm all for stat consolidation to a certain degree.  Having to balance a dozen different stats is a nightmare not only from the developers point of view, but for us the players as well.  I know there are some people who enjoy running spreadsheets to find out whether one more point of "stat Y" will improve their DPS, but I prefer playing the game than studying it.  And there will still be plenty of opportunities for stat-heads to theorycraft things to their heart's content.

That said though, what is interesting about this story is that it is awfully late in D3's development cycle to see these kinds of changes.  The game is in closed beta and, so far as I have heard, the beta has been received favorably by those playing in it and has been proceeding well.  So it seems strange that at this juncture Blizzard would choose to alter large aspects of the game's mechanics.  Perhaps it is a response to beta feedback.  Maybe the players there found all the stats too overwhelming and so Blizzard decided to cut some of them.  Regardless of the reasoning, it leads to the inevitable question about D3's release.  Blizzard is famous for the "when it's done" release date, but between this story and the news last week that South Korea forced the removal of the RMAH, it calls to question when this game will actually see the light of day.

Personally my bet is still for a spring time release.  I'm thinking somewhere in the neighborhood of April or so.  Which would kind of suck for me because I'm already planning on picking up The Secret World right around then.  D3 will just have to wait.

SOPA, PIPA, and You

This last story isn't MMO related specifically, but anyone who uses the Internet for any reason should be aware of this issue.  I am not going to spend time and space here addressing specifically what SOPA and PIPA are.  There are plenty of other resources that can do so far better than I can.  But what I want to draw your attention to here is this story regarding the "postponement" of the legislation in Congress.  I draw your attention to it for two reasons, one good the other not so good.  The good thing here is that "we the people" actually had an impact.  These bills were expected to pass easily.  Congress is typically very sympathetic to copyright issues and this was no exception.  But as people found out how poorly constructed these bills were (as is most legislation) and opposition began to organize, Congress began to realize that they simply couldn't pass the legislation in its current form.

Which brings me to the "bad side" of this story.  If you think this legislation is dead, think again.  It will be back, and it will be back sooner than you think.  They will change the name, alter a provision or two, smooth out the language to pacify people, but the bills themselves are not going away.  They are going to try this again and they are going to try it sooner than you think.  So if this issue is truly important to you, and since you are viewing this blog on the Internet it should be important to you, then my advice to you is to keep watching.  The politicians and the supporters of this legislation are counting on its opponents not staying engaged.  They are hoping that you will think you won and they can slide this by now that you are no longer watching.  Don't give them the chance.  Keep their feet to the fire.  And if they try to pass it again, do the same thing you did this time... be active, be engaged, be involved.

I am sympathetic to the issues of piracy and theft, but in no way would I support the heavy-handed response that SOPA and PIPA propose.

20 January 2012

Instant Inspiration

Well I wasn't planning on doing any more blogging until Sunday, but sometimes things just work out differently.  As I was working my way through my blog roll this morning, I started to come across post after post on the same issue... grouping and group content in Star Wars: The Old Republic.  It wasn't just one person talking about it, it was several.  So as is often the case, it made me think about my own experiences on the issue and what I might do to address it were I in Bioware's place.  I'll include links to the various other bloggers as I go so you can read their full comments as well.  I think it is safe to say that this is a very important issue, and regardless of what "side" you find yourself on personally.  If you are playing SW:TOR, this issue matters to you.

Alone in a Crowded Room

First off, I sympathize highly with Rohan in terms of his personal experiences with grouping in SW:TOR.  My experience with my initial main character (my Smuggler, Zintee) was very much the same.  I completed The Esseles at level.  I was fortunate enough to do Hammer Station and Athiss as well, but ever since then... nothing.  And I am a healer!  Similarly, I have not even attempted a Heroic quest since I left Nar Shaddaa (a low 20's level planet.)  I will admit that part of this is due to the very low cost-to-benefit "ratio" for Heroic quests.  Considering the amount of time they take to complete, even if you can find a group promptly, the reward you receive from them is paltry at best.  So unless you are a total completionist, there really isn't much incentive to even attempt Heroic quests.  My experience with my Bounty Hunter was pretty much the same.  Athiss was the last Flashpoint I completed, and Heroic quests aren't even "on the table."  As I advanced through levels, there simply weren't even enough people on the higher level planets to even bother trying. 

Also like Rohan, I did not participate in the pre-launch guild selection process, and as I have lamented on this blog before, I remain isolated and guildless.  I had thought that after launch, guilds would be active in looking for prospective members and new guilds would still be forming.  I don't know if this is simply not true, or if I am simply not seeing it.  I had expected to find recruitment ads in the various hubs like the Fleet, Coruscant/Dromund Kaas, etc.  But this has not proven to be the case at all.  Either every guild is already satisfied with their membership, or the message isn't getting out.  And that brings me to my second biggest issue with SW:TOR as a game (aside from the horrendous UI.)

SW:TOR's social tools just absolutely, totally, and completely SUCK.  In the game itself you have to rely on user-created channels for any sort of "global" communication, which as others have already mentioned is an exercise in frustration as those channels become dominated by trolls.  And outside the game, even the official forums are not constructed properly to allow for efficient communication.  Seriously, who at Bioware decided that server/shard specific forums should not be included?  Hello?  Bueller?  Anybody home?  This was a horrendous oversight.  I have tried in vain to find guilds on my server that might be recruiting and it is all but impossible with the current forum structure.  Once again, player created resources have emerged to try and fill the gap, but these are poorly maintained and hardly representative of everything and everyone on a server.

A Necessary Evil?

Stabbed makes perhaps the best point about why a "Looking For Dungeon" function in SW:TOR is almost mandatory whether you like it or not.  He is talking about the pros/cons of LFD and the various arguments people make against it.  In talking about how LFD encourages bad behavior, this quote just absolutely hit home for me:

"WoW inherited players trained by EQ's forced grouping system to not be jerks. SWTOR is inheriting people trained by WoW and IT WONT CHANGE THEIR BEHAVIOUR in a month. It's just designers trying to play social engineer with the player base. It's egotistical and it won't work. Few of us care enough about this game to fundamentally change the way we interact with others online."

Truer words could not be spoken.  This is the issue in a nutshell.  WoW changed people's expectations and behaviors when it comes to grouping and group activities.  We now expect to be able to simply "push a button" and have the game assemble a group for us.  We now treat the other people in that group as nothing but disposable NPC's who's goals and motivations matter not a bit to us.  We now find any effort beyond "pushing a button" a waste of our time and an inconvenience.  This is the reality SW:TOR faces.  It no longer matters whether you think LFD is good, bad, the messiah, or the devil.  It is what players of a themepark MMO expect and thus a developer must either provide it, or face the consequences of not doing so.

One of the comments on these posts made an excellent point as well.  If you can't find groups for Flashpoints and Heroic content now when the game is fresh, people are leveling, and populations are active and high... what is going to happen months down the road when people cap out and the "tourists" have left?  LFD for SW:TOR is inevitable, just like it was inevitable for RIFT before it.  Chalk it up as another "unintended consequence" of the WoW juggernaut.  All other prospective themepark MMO's should take note.  Have an LFD-type solution ready to go when your game launches... or else.

A Hill to Die On

As I have said before, I am opposed to LFD in the form it is implemented in WoW.  However, as my father and grandfather would put it, "Are you willing to 'die on that hill?'"  In other words, am I willing to essentially sacrifice any chance of the game being successful, or my ability to enjoy it, simply to remain true to the idea that I don't like LFD?  At this point, I don't know.  I am committed to SW:TOR until April.  During that time, I would like to see some kind of grouping tool introduced.  I would like to believe that smarter people than me can come up with a solution that addresses the issue but does not create the negative side-effects that WoW's LFD had on that game.  Maybe I'm being overly optimistic and such a solution simply does not exist.  But with other games on the horizon that interest me, I may be willing to "die" in SW:TOR over this.  If they do implement LFD and it trashes the game, I can easily walk away.  If they implement no solution at all, I will certainly walk away.  The ball is in your court, Bioware.  Better call a good play.

Quick Business

Just a quick post today to update you on a few things I am considering for the blog.  First off, I need to do a better job of keeping track of news links for the week so I can add them to my Sunday news posts.  I already "lost" a couple I wanted to talk about.  Thankfully a little "Google'ing" fixed the problem, but it's something I need to work a little better on in the future.  Certainly will save me some time later.

The other thing is I found that I really enjoyed writing and posting that summary of my Star Wars: The Old Republic characters to the blog here.  Unfortunately it hasn't helped me locate a guild as of yet, but I had a lot of fun with the post and enjoyed sharing it with you.  That said, I am considering adding a "feature" to the blog where I will occasionally post stories related to my SW:TOR characters.  I certainly wouldn't commit to making it a weekly or even monthly feature, but when the inspiration hits me, I'd love to take the opportunity to share those stories with you. 

I was going to make a post about the ups and downs of SW:TOR this week, but I decided I'll just "fold" that into my Sunday news post since I already have some links and stories to go with that.  So I hope your weekend is off to a good start and I'll see you back here Sunday for all the MMO news that's fit to rant about. :)

19 January 2012

IS SW:TOR Innovative?

A lot of the discussion about Star Wars: The Old Republic since its launch has revolved around questions of its level of innovation.  Does SW:TOR actually bring anything new to the table?  Or is it just another themepark rehash in the same mold as World of Warcraft and Everquest before it?  Two pieces of commentary on this topic emerged yesterday that grabbed my attention and so I thought I would add my own opinion as to whether or not SW:TOR actually charts new ground.

I don't think we're in Kansas anymore... 

Credit to Rohan at Blessing of Kings for the analogy.  Being a Trekkie I couldn't help but smile at the use of a Trek meme to illustrate a SW:TOR issue.  Rohan comments on the use of two planets in the SW:TOR universe; Taris and Balmorra.  He does oversimplify the storyline though.  Suffice to say, if you play as a Republic character, you visit Taris early in your "career" and assist the Republic in reclaiming the planet.  If you are an Imperial character, you visit much later after the Republic's cleanup effort is mostly successful and it is your job to boot them off the planet.  In contrast, Imperial characters visit Balmorra very early and assist the Empire in putting down a resistance movement.  Republic characters arrive after the Imperial crackdown and help resurrect the resistance movement against the Empire. 

From a gameplay perspective however, this is "phasing" on a planetwide scale.  While the planets themselves remain the same for both faction in terms of terrain and geography, they are entirely different zones for each.  When a Republic character travels here, they see the Republic version of the planet, which is a high teens level zone.  No matter when they return, this is always what they will find.  An Imperial character will always find their version of the planet, a mid-30's level zone.  They are completely different and you will never encounter a player of the opposing faction on the planet.  Rohan concludes that this feature offers interesting possibilities as both factions can potentially visit the "same" planet and yet have the story play out differently for each.

Does this qualify as innovation?  Well, as I already mentioned, this is essentially just "phasing" on a much broader scale.  Rather than an area changing, an entire planet changes.  But it differs from phasing in that those changes are dictated purely by faction, not the advancement of a particular quest or event.  For example even when you complete Taris as a Republic player, it will remain the same planet when you return later.  It will not "phase" to the higher level Imperial version later.  For a story driven game like SW:TOR I think this feature may be incorporated into future content and allow for more complex stories to remain intact in the broader game world.

But there is another thing I'd like to comment on at this point.  Rohan calls SW:TOR "two parallel universes that only occasionally overlap," and to a large extent I agree with him.  I have my Bounty Hunter up to level 47 now and it was not until Hoth (a high 30's/low 40's zone) that I actually saw significant numbers of Republic players questing in the same areas I was.  Prior to that I rarely ever saw a Republic character at all, one or two perhaps on Tatooine or Alderaan.  Now granted I play exclusively on PvE ruleset servers, and I avoid consensual PvP like Tim Tebow avoids houses of ill-repute, but I still feel like there is little opportunity for interaction between the factions.  In WoW or RIFT you saw the opposite faction everywhere.  Often you were doing the same quests, in the same places, at the same time.  I'm not sure if SW:TOR's approach is better or worse, but it is certainly different.

The "Mad Doctor of MMO's" weighs in...

The other commentary that got my attention came via Tobold's blog as he linked to this post by Dr. Richard Bartle.  For those of you that aren't familiar with him, Dr. Bartle is the one who came up with the famous "test" that measures MMO players and their motivations, and he has been an observer of the industry practically since the beginning.  The main point he makes that I want to elaborate on has to do with "winning" an MMO.  He makes the point that MMO developers go out of their way to prevent you from ever feeling like you "won," because if you did you'd leave the game.  While this obviously sounds valid on the surface, he argues that this is not necessarily true.  He points to examples of MUD's that ran for years and even decades after they were "over" because people simply liked being there.  And so Dr. Bartle wonders that if an MMO ever actually gave you a "You Won" screen, would people just leave or would they keep returning for other reasons?

While SW:TOR does not present you with a "You Won" screen per say, it does come closer than any other MMO to date.  Once you complete your class story, the content unique to you and that character is completed.  All that remains at that point is the typical "reusable" content that every themepark MMO uses; daily quests, raids, PvP scenarios, etc.  So in this sense we can again ask the question; is SW:TOR innovative?  Bioware is certainly betting that the emphasis on story will interest people.  And certainly SW:TOR tells a better story in the MMO genre than any other game to date.  But will people keep coming back once that story is exhausted?  If after being told how important story is players are now faced with the same old reusable content, will that keep them coming back?  Tobold doesn't think so

I agree with him, but for very different reasons.  I think we are reaching a "tipping point" in MMO's where you no longer need to remain exclusively subscribed to a single game.  Gone are the days where you simply pay your $15 a month every month for your game of choice.  I think what you will start to see is more and more players simply "hopping" from one game to the next.  Right now, people are playing SW:TOR and enjoying it.  But when Mists of Pandaria launches, many will go and check that out.  Then when they are done with that new content, they'll jump back to SW:TOR to see what the latest patch brought.  Or they'll take a peek at The Secret World or they'll hop back on their Guild Wars 2 character for a while.  You see my point?  Soon there will be a "saturation" of high-end AAA games that being exclusive to only one is not only limiting, but somewhat foolish if you truly love MMO's.  Why exclude yourself from SW:TOR content to be "loyal" to WoW?  Why skip out on TERA just because you love TSW? 

This also may herald the end of the subscription model as we know it.  If MMO players really do become this "transient," then developers are going to have no choice but to try and optimize their profits while players are actually IN their game.  If they can make more than $15 a month off a player by removing the subscription and charging for other things during that time, then they certainly will.  This could also offer more varied opportunities for things like "loyalty rewards" to try and stop players from bouncing around quite so much.  All of this saddens me to a degree because as I have mentioned before, I like the concept of staying subbed to a single game that I love.  It is just much simpler for me.  But the reality is that those days may soon be a thing of the past.

Now that's innovation for you.

18 January 2012

Visions of the Future

This isn't going to be an MMO oriented post today, but it is something that has been on my mind since I have been thinking a lot about Star Trek and Star Wars lately.  So what I'd like to talk about for just a little bit, is science-fiction in general and what it has to offer about our future.  I know I'm going to offend some fanbois of both "universes" and probably some general sci-fi fans as well, but hey, what good is a blog if you can't occasionally just run your mouth about something that's on your mind. :)

And here's the first controversial statement.  I really don't think of Star Wars as sci-fi at all.  In my mind, sci-fi speaks specifically to our future somehow.  It talks about future technologies, future societies, future concepts.  But in each case it is directly related to our potential future as a species.  And while yes, humans are the central figures of Star Wars, Lucas himself specifically places the setting of that universe far outside that of Earthbound humanity.  The people in Star Wars are not us in the sense of "Earthlings."  They are from a completely different place and time.  Also, Star Wars uses a lot of storytelling tools and mythos that are more common in "high fantasy" settings.  The Force is akin to magic and the Jedi akin to sorcerers.  Monsters such as kryat dragons, wampa beasts, and rancors appear as adversaries to the heroes.  Overall I think it would be much more accurate to call Star Wars "science-fantasy" rather than science-fiction, and I know I am not the first to describe it in these terms.

What Star Wars really lacks for me in terms of sci-fi is any sort of connection to us.  It is a wonderful story and a very interesting universe.  I enjoy the majority of it immensely (aside from the travesty that is The Phantom Menace.)  But it really doesn't hold any meaning or inspiration for the human future or our potential.  It is just too "detached" from us to hold that kind of a meaning for me.  Again, that does not mean it isn't worthwhile on other merits, but it falls short of what sci-fi is more about for me.  Sci-fi needs to inspire us.  It should point us to (or warn us of) potential advances or disasters that wait for us around the corner.  It should inspire us to make those discoveries (or ward off those disasters) that could be coming.

To Boldly Go...

Which brings us to the single most optimistic view of the future in mainstream sci-fi (at least to my knowledge,) Star Trek.  Where much of sci-fi is darker in terms of its predictions for humanity's future, Star Trek gives us a universe in which almost all of our wildest dreams have been realized.  Hunger, poverty, inequality... many of the problems that plague our world today are no more on the Earth of Star Trek.  And yes, while even casual fans of the series are aware that not everything is quite so rosy in the Federation, Earth itself is portrayed as a place and a society that is beyond the vast majority of these problems.  On top of that, Earth and humanity is at the center of this vast interstellar alliance that acts as a stabilizing force in the galaxy.  Star Trek has always encouraged concepts such as cooperation, tolerance, and peace.  This is part of the reason I find Star Trek: Online to be such a "miscarriage of justice" in terms of the IP itself.

Star Trek not only points us to social and cultural changes in the future, but technological ones as well.  Many of the concepts we saw in the original series of the 1960's have already come into being in some forms today.  Specifically we can see advances in computers and communications technology that were at least partially inspired by concepts introduced in the Star Trek series.  Now does that mean that Star Trek deserves credit for the cell phone and iPad?  Not entirely, but again to me this is part of what sci-fi is all about.  It inspires us.  It shows us what might be possible and encourages us to think, "What if...?"  It stimulates our imagination and points us to a potential that we might not realize otherwise.  And I think Star Trek does this better than any single other segment of the sci-fi genre.

Rage of the Machines

A lot of recent mainstream sci-fi has been more about warnings than inspiration, in my opinion.  You look at something like The Matrix Trilogy or the new Dune novels and you see the "other side" of sci-fi.  Yes these settings introduce us to new technologies and new ideas, but their purpose seems more to be one of warning.  While a setting like Star Trek shows us how technology can do good things like eradicating hunger, these settings show us how it can be our own undoing.  Specifically they warn us about how our "tools" can turn against us when they become aware on their own.  The threat of "artificial intelligence" is a very common theme amongst this darker side of sci-fi.  And interestingly enough, it is an issue that Star Trek almost entirely avoids.  Aside from a stray episode here and there, computers are always our friend in Trek.  Not so for many other sci-fi settings.

But this too is a vital aspect of sci-fi to me.  In some ways, Trek is too good, too utopian.  This is why I don't have a problem with say, the Dominion War in the second half of Deep Space Nine's run.  It is unrealistic to expect everything to go so well all the time.  So this other, darker side of sci-fi has an important role to play as well.  Inspiration must be tempered with caution, lest it become simply blind ambition.  Take the Dune prequels for instance.  They warn us that if we become so complacent and hand over all our cares to machines, that we will lose what makes us human and those machines will in turn rule us.  The message to me?  Technology is an aid, but it cannot run your life.  There are some things that have to remain part of the human experience, no matter how far technology takes us.

I find there is a great lack of inspiration these days.  Perhaps much of that has to do with the state of the economy, many of us being either unemployed or not living the same lifestyle we are used to.  Perhaps it is difficult to "look to the stars" when our main worry is looking to our next meal.  And it is very easy to say that things like space exploration, research, etc. are a waste of money and resources when we have so many problems closer to home.  I would not argue that point.  But I would also say that perhaps it is these times when we need inspiration and imagination the most.  It is when things look bleakest that we need to look to the stars and picture something more, something better. 

16 January 2012

Bloggers and Forum Trolls do NOT Form a Majority

I wanted to start the week off with a little bit of general commentary.  This is a topic I have discussed in the past with my associates in other MMO's and it is a reality that everyone with an interest in the genre needs to be aware of.  Now most of the MMO bloggers that I follow understand this to one degree or another.  But unfortunately others are less informed.  I am speaking to the fact that you and I (those that actively follow MMO's, read about them, research them, etc.) are a distinct minority of those who play MMO games.  The vast majority of MMO players, at least since the advent of World of Warcraft, are far more casual in terms of their overall interest.  They don't read forums.  They don't write blogs.  They don't post on "Elitist Jerks" or Wowhead.  They log in, they do their thing, and they leave.  Why is this important?  Because it causes us to fall into some very bad "trap" behaviors.

We (the "informed") sometimes fall into the trap of thinking that everyone who plays these games is similarly informed.  We expect everyone to be up on the latest "theorycraft."  We expect everyone to know the "best" spec of the week.  When someone asks a question about a quest, or game mechanic, or the user interface, we /facepalm at our desks and wonder why they don't already know the answer.  We call them a "noob" and tell them to "google it" or something to that effect.  We need to stop for a moment and realize that for many of the people playing around us, it is just a game.  I know that is anathema to the "elitist jerks" among the informed, but this is the reality I am speaking to.  Most folks are just looking to have a good time.  They don't care about getting that 0.5% more DPS by moving two talent points or swapping a piece of gear.  If the mobs die before they do, that's good enough for them.  And really, it should be good enough for "us" too.  Obviously this doesn't apply once we start talking about content where that 0.5% actually does matter, but the amount of content that applies to is extremely small and should only be run by like-minded people anyway.

The other trap the "informed" fall into is expecting MMO developers to cater to our needs rather than to this less informed majority.  We are the ones reading the forum threads, subscribing to blogs, and following devs on Twitter.  And so we expect that the decisions that developers make should be responsive to our needs, problems, and issues.  Well yes... and no.  The gaming industry, like any other business, is all about maximizing profit.  Which is more likely to generate more profit?  Catering to the needs of 10% of your customers, or catering to the needs of 75% of your customers?  I'm no math major but even I can figure that one out.  When "push comes to shove," the decisions at the top are going to reflect the needs of the majority of the paying customers.

Now does that mean that the concerns of the "informed" are neglected or ignored?  Certainly not.  Just as a wise developer knows that they have to address the needs of the majority, they also know that keeping us happy has benefits of its own.  A happy informed community provides excellent word of mouth and free "press" about your game.  We gush about it on our blogs, we comment on forums, we spread the word about the good things.  And also, whether we realize it or not, very often we actually want the same things that our less informed fellow players want as well.  So while it may feel like an "Us vs. Them" scenario, often that simply isn't the case.

The one argument I always see from the more narrow-minded among the "informed" is this:  Well, maximizing myself IS how I have fun and so I should be able to play that way if I want and not "put up" with people who don't.  You know what?  I agree... to a point.  I enjoy maximizing my character too, but not to the point of insulting anyone else who is even a tiny bit less than perfect.  If that is truly the only way you can enjoy the game, then by all means do so, but surround yourself with like-minded people so that you are insulated from those "mere mortals" who can't perform at your level.  And those people are then similarly insulated from you and your lack of patience.  Neither group should inflict themselves on the other, but as I think we all are aware, this is a very difficult thing to achieve in practice.

But the next time someone else in one of your groups doesn't perform up to "your" standard, or the next time a developer makes a decision that sounds somewhat silly to you... just remember, you are not the majority. 

15 January 2012

The News of the Week

We interrupt our regular Star Wars: The Old Republic programming for this weekly round up of some significant stories in the MMO world.  I'm going to try and make this a sort of "weekly" feature, more than likely occurring on the weekends, so I can sum up and comment on the big bits of MMO news.  Of course if there is no big news... well, I can always go on another SW:TOR UI rant. ;)  If you follow the industry yourself, you probably are already at least somewhat aware of these type of stories, so I will try by best to include my own perspective in order to make it worth your time.  Without further ado...

Bethesda and Interplay Settle Fallout IP Lawsuit 

Last week news came out that Bethesda and Interplay have finally settled their contentious lawsuit over the rights to publish an online game related to the Fallout IP.  Honestly I am just glad to see the matter settled.  Uncertainty is never a good thing, regardless if you are more supportive of Bethesda or Interplay in this instance.  At least now the matter is concluded and a way forward can be seen for a Fallout MMO.  That said, I'm not sure what exactly the future holds on that count.  On the one hand, you can look at Bethesda's most recent achievement, Skyrim, and say, "Wow, if only that were an MMO..."  On the other hand, Bethesda has little to no experience in the MMO genre and their RPG's are very free-form and to borrow an MMO term, "sandbox."  This isn't the place for a full-on "themepark vs. sandbox" debate, but the simple fact is that sandbox MMO's have not done well in Western markets traditionally.  Add that to Bethesda's lack of MMO background and it is easy to become skeptical about what a Fallout MMO produced under their guidance might look like.  But one thing is for certain.  War... war never changes.

South Korea Forces Blizzard to Remove "RMAH" from Diablo 3 

As I mentioned just a few days ago, one of Diablo 3's most talked about features is its "real money auction house" (RMAH) where players can exchange in-game items for real-world currency.  Well if you want to avoid this controversial feature entirely, move to South Korea.  Apparently the South Korean version of the ESRB determined that this feature amounted to "online gambling" and threatened to hike the rating of the game if Blizzard included it.  In response, Blizzard yanked the feature from the Korean version.  On the surface this doesn't have any direct impacts on anyone not living in South Korea, but it raises the question that if one country sees it that way, others might as well.  And before you ask, "Why would Blizzard care what Korea thinks?" remember that Starcraft is essentially the state sport in South Korea.  I doubt that this decision will set any kind of precedent that other countries will follow... unless they see a way to profit from it.  If classifying Diablo 3 as "gambling" allows some country to tax or otherwise extract more money from either Blizzard or the players, you better believe they'll do it.  It would be ironic if it were governments that got the RMAH concept killed instead of player complaints.

Star Trek: Online Engages Free-to-Play 

This may or may not qualify as "big news" depending on your point of view, but next week will mark the transition of Star Trek: Online to a free-to-pay business model.  STO now joins the ranks of several other high profile MMO's that have dumped their subscription fees in an attempt to generate more revenue.  If you have read my previous posts, you know that I am pretty negative on F2P in general, but that I think these "converted" F2P's are better than most.  That having been said, I still will not be returning to STO.  The game simply isn't fun.  I was there for the beta.  I was there for the launch.  I jumped back in for the ground combat revision.  It just isn't fun.  The best part of the game, the starship combat, becomes very redundant after a while.  And everything else about the game is just terrible.  Even the "new" ground combat does nothing for me.  And we aren't even talking about the total abuse of the IP itself yet.  Star Trek is supposed to be a universe about possibilities, about cooperation, about finding a way other than blasting everything with your phasers.  Whether you agree with this or even find it practical or not, this IS the basis of the Trek IP.  That is totally lost on this game as every mission is little more than a "shooting gallery" of torching enemy starships and ground troops.  The spirit of the IP is just... lost.  And please, don't talk to me about the diplomacy or exploration missions.  They are a complete joke and barely count as content.  So I will not be "boldly going" back even though it wouldn't cost me anything.

Just Food for Thought 

If you don't already read Tobold's MMO blog, I highly recommend it.  He doesn't do long narratives.  He doesn't do tons of screenshots and fancy media.  But I find his blunt, succinct posts to be excellent reading, and occasionally he posts some real gems.  A few days ago he quoted something from another blogger that is just SO true it blew my mind.  Here's the link to the original if you are interested in the context of the comment itself.  Why DO we play MMO's?  What are we trying to achieve?  Is it really that important to be that much better than the next person?  And if so, is it really that important that we make sure that other person knows we are better than them?  Just think about it next time you "pwn that noob," or insult someone for their DPS.

Hope everyone had a great weekend and I'll see you Monday.

12 January 2012

My SW:TOR Story (Warning: LONG post)

Ok this post is going to be quite a bit different than my usual fare, so let me explain.  I have been enjoying Star Wars: The Old Republic immensely.  It has some warts that I am hopeful they will address in the coming weeks, but by and large I love the game and don't regret leaving my other MMO's to devote my time to it.  But... I am essentially playing the game entirely alone.  I have no guild.  I have no friends.  And the total lack of substantive social/grouping tools in the game has made many of the group activities that I enjoy difficult.  While I don't mind playing what amounts to Knights of the Old Republic 3-11, that is not going to hold my attention in this game for the long term.  I need a guild.  I need people to do things with.  So today's post is in essence one big "Looking for Guild."  I know I only have a few readers at this juncture, and the odds of any of you playing on the same server as me are slim at best, but at the very least, this will get what I'm looking for "in writing."  Or maybe some of you could point me to some SW:TOR social resources that I have yet to locate on my own.  I really wish Bioware had official forums dedicated to individual servers, rather than the setup they currently use.

So here's what I am looking for... I am searching for a Medium or Heavy Role-Play guild that also participates in group activities such as Flashpoints.  I do love to RP, but I don't want that to be the only thing the guild does.  Often I find RP guilds focus exclusively on their storylines and neglect the actual game content.  Or they will call themselves "Light RP," which essentially means they don't do it at all and are just a conventional PvE guild.  I am hopeful there are guilds that do both.  My Republic characters are on the Vrook Lamar server (West Coast/RP) and my Imperial characters are on the Begeren Colony server (West Coast/RP.)  My available play time is erratic due to family and work commitments, but generally I am playing most during the mid-day and on the weekends (I work nights most days.)

What I'd like to do now is "introduce" my characters.  I know that established backgrounds and character concepts are important for successful RP, and so I want to demonstrate that I have well thought concepts for my characters and to give prospective guilds an idea of what my capabilities are as a player.  I will include their current level and spec as well.  Once again, content is as important to me as RP, so I want guilds to know what I can contribute in terms of in-game activities.  If you have read my other posts you know that I am willing to switch characters and am not "married" to playing any specific one exclusively.  For example even though I just "dumped" on my Smuggler a couple days ago, with the support of a group I am sure I could whip her into a fabulous healer.  So without further ado... here we go.

Republic Characters:  The Zhon Cartel -  A cabal of smuggling interests led by the cunning Captain Zintee Zhon.  This is my explanation for the game's Legacy System and shared surname.  Each of my characters on this server is a member of my Smuggler's operations for the purposes of role-play.

The Ringleader:  Zintee Zhon (Scoundrel-Sawbones-Level 37)

Legends regarding Force-sensitive twins have existed within the Jedi Order practically since its original founding.  While different Masters have placed varying levels of confidence in these legends, twins with any sort of Force aptitude always attract the attention of the Order.  So it was for the children born to the Zhon family.  Jand Zhon was a minor functionary in the office of a Senator from a backwater planet called Abonga.  His wife delivered the twins Zintee and Zinto while they were stationed in the Coruscant office of the Senator and thus immediately attracted the attention of the Jedi.  While both children did demonstrate sensitivity to the Force, Zintee was never able to manifest it in any specific way.  For her, the Force was little more than what she would come to call her "Scoundrel's Luck."  She had an incredible knack for simply being in the right place at the right time and always coming out on the winning end of a deal.  So the Jedi did not bring her to Tython for training, but instead kept a watchful but distant eye, should she exhibit more powerful abilities later.

Seeing how the Republic operated from inside the office of a Senator, Zintee quickly became disillusioned with the "official" ways of doing business.  Political red tape, bureaucracy, and senseless laws and regulations became the "enemies" that Zintee fought against.  This disdain for authority eventually led her to the "wrong" side of the law and she began a career as a minor Smuggler.  Taking an "advance" from her father's government pension, she purchased a small starship and took a job running guns to Ord Mantell.

Zintee is a criminal, but not for the sake of inflicting damage on others.  She sees herself as working "outside the system" to help those who need it.  That said, she will put her own benefits ahead of others when the two come into conflict, but she will not go out of her way to kill, steal, or otherwise hurt the innocent.  Her priorities are simple... what helps me first, what helps others second, and what helps the Republic whether they realize it or not.  She would never call herself a patriot, but at the end of the day, she knows the Sith Empire is bad for business.  The Republic is far from perfect, but in her mind it is a matter of the "devil you know," as opposed to the one you don't.

(This is my healer, and for all my complaining about my problems soloing, every instance I have healed with her has been successful with only minor difficulties.  So I am confident I can be a good healer if given the chance.)

The Stalwart Conscience:  Delarre Yson (Jedi Shadow-Kinetic Combat-Level 22)

One might wonder why you would find a Jedi amongst a Smuggler's crew, but Delarre personifies the common thread that binds Zintee's comrades together.  They all have seen the corruption and inefficiency that plagues the organizations they love or represent.  And they all have made a decision that a bit of "extra-legality" is permissible in order to preserve those institutions.  Delarre is a loyal member of the Jedi Order, and if confronted would never deny such.  But in rising through the ranks of the Jedi, she discovers that the Order is just as much plagued by bureaucracy and suspect leadership as any other organization, despite the image they portray to the outside world.  But like with all things among the Jedi, things are not entirely as they appear.

Delarre views herself as the "conscience" of Zintee's rogue crew.  She sees it as her responsibility to prevent the Captain or her associates from doing anything deliberately violent and destructive.  And while Zintee herself is often restrained in this regard, her other comrades are not, and so Delarre often finds herself as the last line of "defense" between an unfortunate innocent and Zinto or Jendia's mean streaks.  Her loyalty to the Jedi and the Code is constantly strained by this, but Delarre simply views it as the burden that the Force has chosen her to bear, and so she does not question it.  But there is more to Delarre's self-imposed mission than she realizes.

Her Masters in the Jedi Order have not forgotten Zintee's latent Force abilities, nor the violent tendencies of her formally trained brother Zinto.  While given no formal directive from the Council, part of her purpose is to observe the Zhon twins.  If Zintee exhibits any overt Force powers, or if Zinto shows signs of falling to the Dark Side, the Masters of the Council will be made aware through their connection with Delarre.  She is not aware of this mission, nor the latent potential in the Zhon twins, but the Jedi always have plots moving within plots, and Delarre's presence among Zintee's crew is no accident.

(This is my tank on this server.  I've only done the two lower level Flashpoints, and while Shadow tanking does feel a bit odd, I have been mostly successful to this point.  I've only had one wipe, and that was in Hammer Station due to someone getting knocked off the platform.)

The Flesh and Blood:  Zinto Zhon (Jedi Sentinel-Combat-Level 11)

While his sister Zintee did not display any overt Force talents, Zinto demonstrated them in abundance.  It was clear from a very early age that he was extremely strong in the Force.  Thus as soon as was practical, he was sent from his family's home on Coruscant to the new Jedi training facilities on Tython for formal Jedi training.  He became the hope of his parents to escape the mediocrity of their lives on Coruscant and every holomessage from his father attempted to remind Zinto that his family's hopes were riding on him.  Zinto took these messages to heart and it pushed him to train ever harder.  He immediately rose to distinguish himself from his peers and was selected by his Masters for early advanced training.  The Jedi Order was in need of strong leaders and so caution was bypassed in the hope of creating the next generation of great Jedi.  In Zinto's case however, this may prove to be his undoing.

As the pressures of training and his family's expectations began to mount, the strain took its toll on Zinto.  Every exercise he pushed himself that much harder.  Every lesson he studied that much more intensely.  It mounted to the point where something eventually would have to break, and unfortunately it cost another young Padawan his life.  Zinto was practicing lightsaber forms with other students, when in a tragic over-correction, he put an excessive amount of strength behind one of his blows.  The overmatched and unprepared Padawan he was facing crumpled under the assault and fell dead at Zinto's hands.  His Masters determined it was an accident and agreed to continue his training, albeit at a reduced pace, but Zinto did not learn the lesson his Masters had thought.

His Masters believed that Zinto would be humbled by the incident, would learn to temper his strength, but this was not so.  The lesson Zinto learned was that the strong always overcome the weak, and they should not apologize for being strong.  Zinto came to view his superior Force talents as vindication of this strength and that it was his to use as he sees fit, not some Code recited from ancient philosophers.  While his Masters became more alarmed at his behavior, at this juncture they believed it safer to keep him in the fold than to turn him out, so he remains a Jedi in name, if not in practice.

(This is my plain old "stab things in the face" melee DPS character.  I figured the backstory would work nicely for a play style that simply wants to kill things and doesn't care a whit for anything else.)

The Explosive Enforcer:  Jendia Sentau (Commando-Gunnery-Level 11)

What do you do when the military lifestyle gets to be a bit too... restrictive for your liking?  You declare yourself to be on "extended assignment" and sign up with your friendly, neighborhood Smuggler.  Jendia signed up for the Republic military with stars in her eyes and a love of the Republic in her heart.  She was the definition of a patriot, looking to do her part to defend the Republic from the Sith Empire.  But like the rest of the crew she would come to join, she quickly discovered that not everything about the Republic was worth defending.  Between the Senate cutting deals with the Empire, the military allowing outposts to go undefended, and the absurd rules of engagement established by the Treaty of Coruscant, Jendia's patriotism quickly grew jaded and sour.  If the Republic wouldn't defend itself, then she would find another way, and that's when Captain Zintee came into her life.

The Republic was aware of Zintee's operations and despite her so-called "good intentions," the authorities wanted her shut down.  Jendia was placed in command of a small special operations squad with the orders to apprehend Zintee by any means necessary.  Jendia was actually successful in cornering her target while trying to smuggle venom off of the toxic planet of Quesh, but the confrontation quickly turned into a negotiation when both sides realized that they actually wanted the same thing.  Zintee convinced Jendia that "by the book" wasn't getting the job done and if she really wanted to save the Republic, that she should sign on with her.  While not trusting the Smuggler's motivations, Jendia couldn't argue with her results.  And so she informed the rest of her squad that she was going "on assignment" and left with Captain Zintee.

Jendia's desire to assist the Republic is only matched by her temper.  She has little interest in negotiations and prefers to let her assault cannon do the talking whenever possible.  So Zintee tries to keep her away from meetings with potential clients, unless she already knows that a negotiation is liable to end in violence, in which case she always brings Jendia along.  Often her definition of "what is good for the Republic" is quite different from that of the casual observer, which leads to a lot of gratuitous destruction, or as she prefers to call it, "collateral damage."

(This character is basically a "clone" of my Bounty Hunter.  I loved that style of play so much that I wanted to still be able to enjoy it if I ended up coming back to the Republic full time.)

Imperial Characters:  Clan Aggressor - A Mandalorian hunting clan led by the Grand Champion Kalgrien Aggressor.  Granted a clan of his own by Mandalore, each character on this server is a member of Kalgrien's hunting party.

The Champion of the Hunt:  Kalgrien Aggressor (Mercenary-Arsenal-Level 40)

The story of Kalgrien Aggressor can be summed up in a single word: audacity.  There is little that Kalgrien won't dare, whether it is staring down the blaster barrel of the galaxy's most notorious scum, laughing in the face of Jedi Masters, or making outrageous demands of Mandalorian warlords.  From the moment he took on his first contract, to the day he won the annual Great Hunt, there was never a question in Kalgrien's mind that he would triumph.  Such "devil may care" attitudes get the vast majority of the people who hold them killed, but Kalgrien is the rare one who's talents actually match his bluster.  Every brag, every boast, and every claim he makes is backed up by the notches in his blasters.  So far every one who has challenged his claims has ended up just another bounty to be collected on.

But winning the Great Hunt was only one example of his audacity.  Shortly thereafter, he surpassed himself again, this time making a demand to Mandalore himself.  Kalgrien wanted to establish his own hunting clan, despite having no previous connections to the Mandalorian culture.  Mandalore's advisers were shocked and expected their leader to evict their "guest" through the nearest airlock, but instead their leader laughed mightily and clapped Kalgriend on the back.  "Anyone bold enough to make such a request to my face, I cannot deny.  May Clan Aggressor prosper and honor!"  Kalgrien replied that honor was best measured by credits and went out to assemble the best hunting party money could buy.

Kalgrien's audacity brought him the most unusual of recruits, all motivated by their own goals, but this is precisely what Kalgrien wanted.  He wanted his clan each looking out for themselves because in a twisted way, that would guarantee the success of the group as a whole.  No one wants to be a failure and the internal competition would always push each to perform their best.  Kalgrien knows he has to keep a watchful eye on his subordinates, but that too is part of the plan.  Who better to eventually test his skills against than those he personally has trained and overseen?  Besides, given enough time, they surely will acquire large bounties of their own...

(This character is pure shoot 'em up.  He is absolutely a blast to play (literally) and the most fun I have had in the game so far.  That said, I would be open to trying his healing tree if that's where the needs are.  The heat mechanic works similarly enough to Smuggler energy that the transition wouldn't be too difficult.)

The Heavy Blade:  Furion Candor (Sith Juggernaut-Immortal-Level 21)

The last of a dying breed, Furion sees it as his duty to ensure that the true Sith are not forgotten.  As the pureblood Sith become more of a rarity among the ranks of the dark Force users, Furion does not want to see the Sith disappear quietly into the pages of history.  It offends him that the term "Sith" is now used simply to refer to those wielders of the dark side, not the noble red-skinned race that he represents.  On the surface he appears to be little more than a mindless brute, using his immense Force strength to augment his frail physical body and perform feats that no one of his stature should be capable of.  But this brutality is not without purpose, even though it may appear at times that he engages in it for no other reason than to simply inflict pain.  No, Furion's motivations run deeper than that, although he would never deny that he takes immense pleasure in random acts of violence and inflicting pain.

Furion wishes to be remembered.  He wants to ensure that the Sith as a species are never forgotten.  He intends to scribe his name alongside the ancient Dark Lords who's tombs scatter the surface of their ancestral homeworld of Korriban.  And that is what drew him to Kalgrien.  After a particularly bloody and violent "incident" in a Dromund Kaas cantina, Kalgrien approached the young Sith.  Seething with anger and hatred, the warrior threatened the burly bounty hunter.  Kalgrien merely laughed and said he wanted to offer the Sith a job.  Typically this would have resulted in yet another bloody "incident," but again Kalgrien's audacity (and Furion's ambition) won the day.  Kalgrien saw the perfect enforcer for his new clan, and Furion saw an opportunity to begin forging the destiny he knew he was entitled to.

Furion and Kalgrien do share one other attribute, they care nothing for the politics around them.  The conflict between the Republic and the Empire is simply a canvas on which they can paint their own destiny.  Whenever there is need for blood to be spilled and a clear message to be sent, Kalgrien intrusts Furion to send the message in blood, and Furion is happy to oblige.  And in terms of writing his destiny, what better way to add his name to the pages of history than to eventually turn on his employer and kill a winner of the Great Hunt...

(This character is my tank on this server.  As with my Shadow, I have only done the two lowest instances, but also as with my Shadow, I have been highly successful on both counts.  I am confident I could play a tank at a high level if called upon.)

The Stunning Slave:  Raefeli Teigen (Sith Sorceror-Corruption-Level 12)

The life of an alien is difficult within the Sith Empire.  Bound in hereditary slavery dating back to the days of their defeat in the Great Hyperspace War, all non-humans suffer to a varying degree within the social structure of the Empire.  One of the few ways one can elevate themselves out of this condition is to demonstrate Force aptitude and survive the brutal training academy of Korriban.  So it was for Raefeli.  A Twi'lek slave resigned to a life of little more than beatings, whippings, and more physical labor than her frame could withstand, she attracted the attention of a passing Sith Lord while undergoing a beating that would easily have killed someone not attuned to the Force.  But this Sith could sense Raefeli unconsciously drawing on the Force to sustain herself.  The ability to give life instead of take it is rare amongst dark Force users and so this Sith Lord immediately ordered Raefeli transferred to his ownership and sent to the academy on Korriban.

At the completion of her training, Raefeli was freed from her formal slavery, although still bound to her new Sith masters, and for the first time in her life could exercise some control over her own destiny.  What developed in her heart was a bizarre ambiguity in which she sought to oppose slavery and free those bound to it, but to support and empower the Empire itself.  She felt it was the Empire that finally granted her the freedom and opportunities she had obtained, and that if only shown the error of it, the Empire would abandon slavery.  In addition she finds the Empire's overt acceptance of slavery at least to be honest, as opposed to the Republic which condemns it officially but practices it covertly.  Raefeli believes that if the Republic is fully defeated, then there will be no more need for slavery in the Empire.

She crossed paths with Kalgrien while hunting down a slave dealer in the bowels of Nar Shaddaa.  Unbeknownst to her, they both had the same target.  When Kalgrien arrived mere moments before Raefeli could spring her own trap, she was infuriated.  Denied the kill that she had sought, she turned her Force abilities against the startled bounty hunter.  Fueled by the rage and disappointment of her failure, her assault came the closest to subduing Kalgrien that any opponent had yet achieved.  But the gritty hunter still emerged victorious.  Audacious to the end, rather than kill his weakened foe, Kalgrien said that anyone who could come that close to defeating him has to be on his payroll, and offered the Twi'lek Sorceror a job.  Raefeli was taken aback, but after Kalgrien promised that every slaver bounty would go to her, she agreed.  But if Kalgrien ever engaged in slavery himself...

(This character is my healer on his server.  I've yet to perform this function in a group as yet.  The one Black Talon run I did was with overleveled characters and so healing was no object.  Frying everything in sight with purple lighting is awesome though.)

The Silent Voice:  Cinti Decarre (Sniper-Marksmanship-Level 11)

Audacity, brutality, and morality.  One final component was missing from Kalgrien's hunting clan; subtlety.  He needed a tool to send a silent message, a path through the shadows when the front door simply cannot be opened.  That brings us to the story of the Chiss Imperial Agent, Cinti.  The Chiss are probably the only alien species within the Empire with any sort of legitimacy, and Cinti used this to obtain a prime posting in the Imperial Intelligence academy.  Trained in the highest forms of espionage, sabotage, and assassination, she quickly established herself as one of the most reliable operatives in Imperial service.  She may collect an Imperial paycheck, but Cinti is loyal to nothing and no one except herself.  Her time in the shadows has taught her that all power structures are fleeting, that even the most powerful can be toppled if the right lever is found.  She knows the time is coming for the Empire and Republic both, and she works to make sure that she survives when the galaxy comes crashing down.

Until that time, she is content with her service to the Empire, and as one of their most trusted agents, she drew a most difficult assignment.  Imperial Intelligence had been watching Kalgrien Aggressor since his triumph in the Great Hunt and while his assistance to the Empire was noteworthy, he was a "loose cannon" that could not be trusted.  Thus the determination was made that despite his usefulness, in the interest of Imperial security, he needed to be terminated.  Cinti was chosen to carry out this task.  While Imperial Intelligence prides itself on secrecy, no data packet is safe from Kalgrien's ace slicer, Mako.  Having intercepted a communique between Cinti and Dromund Kaas, Kalgrien was tipped off to the pending assassination attempt and proceeded to set a trap of his own.

Remembering that Gault had a clone of himself made, Kalgrien went to Nar Shaddaa to purchase a duplicate of his own.  Having an idea of when and where Cinti intended to strike, Kalgrien placed his duplicate in the agent's line of fire and observed from a safe distance as she made her move.  He was highly impressed with the professionalism and stealth Cinti displayed in her attempt.  Not wanting to make it too easy for her, he had Blizz prepare some "surprises" for Cinti to work around before she could position for the kill.  After the deed was supposedly done, Kalgrien met the stunned agent at the airlock to her starship.  Clapping slowly and deliberately, he congratulated her on a good hunt and offered her a choice; report her failure back to the Empire, or sign on with him.  Ever the pragmatist, Cinti realized that reporting back would be a death sentence.  At least with Kalgrien she would live to fight another day, so she accepted the offer.  But someday, she would find the "lever" that would topple this man too...

(This character is also pure DPS.  I played a bit of the Agent's storyline back in the beta and absolutely loved it, so I wanted to come back to it at some point.)

I know not all of these stories are exactly original... but I think they are pretty creative.  And heck, finding something truly original is pretty tough nowadays.  I think I did pretty good all things considered.  So......... if you managed to read all that, and are playing SW:TOR, and know of a guild looking for a good RP'er who loves to play the game, please point me their way.

I really need a place to call home.