29 June 2012

My "Secret" Journey: Prologue Concluded

And finally we have the last "chapter" of my character prologue for The Secret World.  Just a bit of a disclaimer before we get to it.  I am "skipping" ahead in time.  I am not describing the events depicted in the game where your character is awakened to the "secret world."  For the purposes of my character, I consider the sequence depicted in the game introduction as "canon" and will not seek to explain it or elaborate on it.  Thus this final portion picks up after she has experienced the "Tokyo Flashback" and is undergoing her initial training with the Templars.  I realize this may be a bit confusing for those who are following the story but not actually playing the game, so hopefully this helps explain things somewhat.  Enjoy!   

Awakenings (one week later)

"Dead?  What do you mean dead?" Medina shouted at the stone-faced Templar auditor who was calming typing away at his computer.  "What about my family?  Samantha?"

"The flat which you were occupying has burned down," the auditor replied without looking up from his keyboard.  "You died in the fire.  This was reported in the news and relayed to your family and acquaintences."

"A fire?  But I didn't..." Medina stuttered and tried to compose a response.

"Of course you didn't," the auditor was beginning to sound exasperated.  "What part of 'secret' did you not understand?  Did you think we would just send you home with a 'Hi, I'm a Templar' t-shirt?  They said you were college educated.  I am beginning to wonder."  After everything else she had been through in the past week, the attack on Medina's intellect was particularly damaging.  She flinched as if physically struck.

"I just don't understand..." she whispered softly, holding her head in her hands.  "I don't understand anything anymore."  The auditor finished typing and finally looked at her.

"Good.  Then perhaps there is hope for you after all."  He tapped one final key on his keyboard and the large mahogany doors behind him opened.  "Your profile has been uploaded.  Report to Mr. Sonnac for further instructions."  Medina took a moment to try and compose herself.  She tugged on her ponytail, straightened her jacket, and walked as steadily as she could towards the large double doors.  As she was about to pass through them the auditor spoke one last time.  "Ms. Zhon?"  She stopped and turned.

"Welcome to the Templars." 

She managed a wan smile and a nod and continued into the office of Richard Sonnac.  It looked like something out of one of her history textbooks; immense paintings, bookshelves filled with archaic texts, elaborate chandeliers.  It all conveyed a sense of power and knowledge.  Knowledge, Medina thought to herself as her eyes scanned the room.  I thought I had knowledge.  I thought I understood the world.  She sighed and focused her eyes on the only other occupant of the room, seated behind a large, oak desk.  I am such a fool.  Politics, philosophy, history... what does it all mean?  Nothing.  It was all a lie.  I devoted my life to understanding a lie.

"Ms. Zhon!"  Richard Sonnac's voice cut into her reverie.  "Do come in, make yourself comfortable.  We have much to discuss."

"That's an understatement," Medina mumbled under her breath as she took a seat opposite Sonnac's desk.  He smiled wryly and steepelled his hands in front of him.

"Yes, I would imagine you have a lot of questions.  Some I can answer, some I cannot, and some it would be best if you answered for yourself."  She glared back at him angrily and allowed her growing frustration to show.

"Which category would telling everyone I know that I'm dead fall under?" she shot back at him.

"That I can answer," Sonnac replied thoughtfully.  "But I don't think I have to.  You can understand the reasoning of it just as well as I, even if you can't accept it yet."  Her laser-like intensity wavered as she considered his words.  He's right, she sighed and slumped slightly in the chair.  They can't know what has happened to me, what I've become, what the world truly is.  I'm alone in this.  "But you aren't alone," he continued as if reading her thoughts.  "The Templar is your family now.  You will find all the support you need within our organization.  That support is not without cost however.  As you are now aware, there are dark forces moving in the world, and it is up to us to stop them."  He stood up and began pacing the length of his office.

"Who..." Medina paused and reconsidered her response.  "What are they?"

"That I cannot answer," he said, stopping his pacing and looking at her directly.  "At least not in so many words, and at this point it would only confuse you further."  He returned to his desk and punched up her profile.  "We already have your first assignment, but there are two people you need to speak to before you depart.  The first is our weapons master.  You'll find him in the Crucible."

"Weapons?  But I've never..." Medina began to protest.

"You're a soldier now, Ms. Zhon," Sonnac stated evenly.  "You will find that much of being part of our organization is 'on the job training,' so take advantage of the safe environment while you can."  The true gravity of the situation began to dawn on Medina just a bit more at that point.  A soldier... in a war.  If only I had listened to my mother...  "The weapons master will give you a basic introduction to hand-to-hand combat, firearms training, and martial magic."

"Magic?" she gasped.

"Magic," Sonnac said.  "What?  Did you think only the things that go bump in the night were real?  You have the capacity within you to 'bump' back, so to speak."  He typed up some more commands on his computer and blinked slightly at the results.  He composed himself so quickly that Medina almost didn't catch it.  "When you are finished in the Crucible, report back to me and I will direct you to your second contact before you depart."  She nodded and stood, leveling her emerald eyes on Sonnac.

"So what do I call you?  Sir?  Boss?  Something more formal and imperious?"  Sonnac chuckled softly.

"Mr. Sonnac will do, or just Sonnac.  We may be a thousand year old organization, but not all of us are so pretentious."  Medina turned on her heel and left the room, heading for the Crucible.

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It was just a short walk from Sonnac's office and as she entered the chamber she was taken aback by the shackled demons throughout the room.  Well if there was any doubt that this was real, that about takes care of that, Medina thought to herself.  The surly weapons master stood in the center of the chamber and beckoned her over.

"Get a move on, lass!"  he shouted.  "Time and tide wait for no man, or no lady either."  She quickly made her way down to the lower level and listened intently as the weapons master gave her information about all the weapons at her disposal.  She glanced around the room at each weapon in turn as he described them, filing away the basics of each.  For the first time since this bizarre ordeal began, her academic training came back to the forefront as she was able to easily categorize and memorize the basic training the weapons master was giving her.  But one decision had already been made.

Her father had always wanted her to learn how to shoot, but the idea of holding a gun had always scared Medina too much.  Being a woman of small stature, she was always afraid that if she carried one, it would just be taken and used against her, so she never learned.  Well... now is my chance.  As the weapons master concluded his presentation, she purposefully ignored the melee weapons and magic foci and strode directly to the firearms station.  Glancing over the available options, she settled on the pump-action 12-gauge shotgun.  Lifting it in her hands, she tucked it against her hip and smiled.  This is for you, dad.  And to all you things that go bump in the night... she closed her eyes and cocked the shotgun.  I'm going to make you pay for taking my life away.

"Made your choice already, lass?" the weapons master shouted from behind her.

"I'm ready," Medina told him, strapping the gun to her back and confidently leaving the room.

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"Well that didn't take long," Sonnac's mellow tones declared as Medina strode back into his office.  "I was expecting you to be gone at least an hour, considering how little martial training you currently possess."

"Let's just say I had an... inspiration," she told him, placing the shotgun in her lap as she sat down in the same chair as before.  "After all I've been through, there is something reassuring about a gun.  Nothing supernatural about a bullet between the eyes."  Sonnac regarded her thoughtfully.

"True enough, now let's talk about your second contact."  He sat and turned his computer monitor to face her.  On it was a single word, <ASYLUM>.

"Asylum?  Is that a person?" Medina asked him.  He closed his eyes and shook his head.

"No, it is... a society within a society, so to speak."  He turned the monitor back to face himself and continued.  "It is a group within the Templars made up of individuals with more unique talents than our typical 'foot soldiers.'"  She began to question him but he continued over her.  "Yes, yes, I know.  The weapons master gave you the 'you are not special' speech.  It is true, there are many with your talents, and many with talents that exceed yours.  But there is something that sets you apart none the less.  I cannot tell you what it is because I do not even know what it is."  He cleared his computer screen and stood.  "Compartmentalization of information is the name of the game in an organization such as ours.  But for whatever reason, you have been assigned to the Asylum.  They are based in an apartment complex not far from here.  Your contact there is a Ms. Ainslee Simpson.  Report to her and then we can discuss your first assignment.  And do take your time, all jokes about 2012 aside, the apocalypse will still be waiting when you get back."

"Yes, sir Mr. Boss Sonnac," Medina said as she gave a mock salute and made her way out of the office.

"Oh and one last thing," Sonnac called as she placed her hand on the door.  "Since Medina Zhon is 'dead' you'll need a new identity.  Among the Templar you will simply be known as 'Xintia.'"

"Xintia?" she said, sounding confused.  "Where did that come from?"  Sonnac only smiled and shrugged.

"Compartmentalization of information, remember?  But do remember, you are dead to the rest of the world.  Xintia is who you are now.  Medina... is gone."  She took a moment to consider the impact of his words.

"Yes I suppose she is," Xintia said, turning her hand on the knob.  "In more ways than one."  Behind her Mr. Sonnac sighed softly.

"Unstable indeed..."

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Leaving the massive Templar complex, Xintia paused a moment and looked up into the evening London sky.  I'm a scholar, not a soldier.  I'm a seeker of knowledge, not a destroyer.  She closed her eyes and wanted to scream.  But all that knowledge was useless, empty, a lie.  I need to know.  She clenched her fists and her sides and let the frustration boil out of her.

"I NEED TO KNOW!" she screamed into the night air.  I need to understand THIS world, the real world... the secret world.  And with that she turned down the street to seek out the Asylum and one Ainslee Simpson.

26 June 2012

Defining "Free-to-Play"

The topic of what constitutes "free-to-play" is somewhat frustrating to me.  All too often people consider F2P as a "one size fits all" proposition and that it is a single design with a single outcome.  As more and more games adopt versions of the F2P model, this thinking seems to become more and more prevalent, which frustrates me all the more.  Why?  Because nothing could be further from the truth.  The concept of F2P is not a single, unified scheme.  There are several different ways to approach F2P and they are quite different in terms of the access a non-paying user has to the game, or how a non-paying user can play the game.  People who think the F2P "revolution" will result in them being able to "freeload" their favorite franchises are sorely mistaken.  The way I see it, F2P can be broken down into two general frameworks, and I want to use this post to lay out the major differences between the two.

Disclaimer:  I don't like F2P.  I've said so before, but I just want to be clear.  The tenor of this post is going to be rather negative.  But I do want to differentiate the two major "schools" of F2P as I see them.

Free to Play, But Pay to Stay



Ok, these are the kind of games I think most people have in mind when they think of F2P.  I use Runes of Magic as an example because it is a game I actually played for a bit during my "wanderings" after leaving World of Warcraft.  In this type of game, the client itself is free.  There is no charge or fee to download, install, or run the game.  And within the game itself, the vast majority of the actual content is accessible to any player without regard to payment.  You don't need to buy access to questing zones, raids, PvP battlegrounds, etc.  Sounds like a pretty good deal, right?  Well, just because you can access something doesn't mean that you will, at least not for free.

Where a game like this makes its money is through its shop.  Since they aren't selling content per say, a game of this type sells power boosts, conveniences, or both.  It is common to find items such as XP boosting potions, travel mounts, inventory expansions, even just the ability to speak in global chat channels in the shops of these games.  Depending on the game, you can even directly buy weapons, armor, and other items to boost your character.  Often in games that allow this, the content is designed with the assumption that you are going to purchase this gear, or XP boosts, or other cash benefits.  The result of this is that non-paying players will find their advancement very slow and "grindy" as they are playing on a lower "curve" than the content is designed for.

Conveniences are also often only available through cash purchases, or heavy accumulation of in-game funds.  What do we mean by conveniences?  Mostly we're talking about mounts, inventory space, and chat privileges.  A non-paying player in a game like this will often find that they are limited to normal running/walking speed, or short duration "rental" mounts, a small personal inventory, and only have access to local/spatial chat channels.  Now how much these things matter is going to vary from person to person, but again the game is designed around the notion that you are going to buy these conveniences to some degree, limiting the options of a non-paying player.

What appeals to the average player about this system, and the reason I believe people think it is the "wave of the future," is the issue of content access.  In a game like this, if a player is willing to make do with limited conveniences and "grind" their way through things, they can do anything a paying player can do and see all the content the game has to offer.  The game itself is free and the content expansions are provided for free.  And by providing alternate paths to acquiring cash shop benefits, the illusion is maintained that anything is possible without paying a dime.  While this is true in theory, in practice I would argue that very few players are willing to put in the time and effort that these games require in order to obtain the same "free" benefits.  Let's be honest here, instant gratification is already the "word of the day" in modern MMO design (hi there, WoW).  Do you really think that the "average" player is going to grind themselves to death in a "free" game just to avoid paying a few bucks?  Because I don't see it.

Freemium:  The Trial Model 



The second F2P camp, and the one I think developers really have their eye on, as opposed to the above model, is what I like to call "freemium."  Dungeons and Dragons Online is the first game I can think of that adopted this model after launching as a standard subscription product.  If anyone can think of an earlier example of "freemium" though, do let me know.  As with the "true" F2P model, the client of a "freemium" game is also free.  But that is where the similarities between the two end.  While "true" F2P does not rely on payment to access content, "freemium" games are based primarily around that very concept.

While "freemium" games employ a cash shop much like "true" F2P does, the emphasis of that shop is much different in a "freemium" game.  Here the emphasis is not so much on convenience or boosting (although those may or may not be present as it varies from game to game).  Instead the emphasis is on selling you content.  A non-paying player in a "freemium" game is going to find large portions of the game inaccessible.  A game of this type focuses on selling things such as quest packs, additional zones or dungeons, and even full sized expansions.  If you are not going to pay any money for a game like this, you are essentially playing an "extended trial" rather than the full game itself.  Doesn't sound too great does it?  So why have games that switched to this model (DDO, Lord of the Rings Online, DC Universe, Star Trek: Online) become more profitable?

This model puts a degree of choice into the hands of the player.  Very often a "freemium" game will continue to offer a full subscription option.  If you really enjoy the game and know you will play it monthly, you can continue to pay according to the traditional model.  In most "freemium" games this means automatic access to each content update as they are released and a monthly "stipend" for the game's cash shop.  So for the "traditional" MMO player, nothing much changes, which is appealing to them.  For others, "freemium" gives them the option to purchase content as they use it, rather than on a flat fee schedule that may not suit their needs.  Don't feel like booting up the game this month?  No problem, no investment.  Big content update next month?  Drop in and pick it up.  A great deal of flexibility is afforded to the player.

"Free" is really an illusion with this model, much more so than with "true" F2P.  Yes you can play a "freemium" game without paying anything.  But often you will reach a point where you simply have no alternative than to pay in order to continue.  And unlike "true" F2P, it is much more rare in a "freemium" game to find alternate paths to obtaining the same content for free that other players are paying for.  They may allow you to save up enough to buy some new bags or a mount, but getting access to that next questing zone or dungeon is often only the realm of the cash shop. 

The Misconception

Which brings us full circle to why the discussion of F2P frustrates me.  Based on the comments I read around the 'Net, I am left with the impression that when the average gamer thinks of F2P, they are thinking of the first model.  The game is free, the content is free, you just get "nickle'd and dime'd" on conveniences and shortcuts, and people think to themselves, "Well I can live without those things.  I beat the system!"  Not only are they underestimating just what is necessary to truly play for free in these kind of games, they are misinterpreting the intent of game developers.  Because when they talk about embracing F2P, I don't think developers are looking at the first model, they are looking at the second.

The precedent is already there for many current games and franchises.  When you look at games like Call of Duty, Mass Effect, Battlefield, etc. you can already see the "freemium" concept at work.  Yes for now you are still paying for the "client" up front, but what are you paying for after the fact?  Content.  DLC in these games often takes the form of new maps, new quests, new zones to play in, much like what you find in a "freemium" MMO.  THIS is what MMO developers have in mind when they say the "future" of games is F2P.  They don't want to sell you a backpack (although some of them will do that too) they want to get you in the door for "free," and then "sell" you the rest of the game piece by piece. 

So yes, F2P may be the inevitable future of games, but don't think it means that we'll be living in some gaming utopia where we are playing World of Warcraft II for free.  If you look at what developers are really saying, I think you will find the actual message to be something much different.

25 June 2012

Post #100

Well I'm not normally the kind of person to indulge in "milestones," but I'll make an exception for this one.  This post marks the 100th post to this blog.  It is significant to me in the sense that this blog is actually my fourth attempt at blogging, not all on the same topic.  I've tried to start blogs based on many of my hobbies including cooking, sports, and politics, but for one reason or another they always fell flat.  Now if you measured success strictly through readership or pageviews, then this blog hasn't been much more successful than any of those were.  I'm still sitting somewhere around 50 visits per day.  But it's never really been about the size of the audience to me.  I am grateful to each of you who take the time to read what I have to say when I post.  Do I wish it were more?  Sure, who doesn't?  But I am appreciative simply for the opportunity and the platform to speak my mind about things that I am passionate about.

I know that the tenor of my posts has been a little strange lately.  Aside from the character prologues and the Sunday news posts, I haven't had much "direct" to say about specific issues.  As I said, I think this is mostly due to it being a sort of "down time" for me right now in that I am not playing an MMO full time at the moment.  But that is going to change very soon when The Secret World launches at the end of this week.  Once I have a game to sink my teeth into, I think it will stimulate my interest not only in that game itself, but in the broader issues affecting the genre as a whole as well.  It is just difficult to feel fully "invested" in what is going on when you don't really have a "stake" in the game, and I suppose that describes how things are for me with no specific game to play.

So while I certainly don't intend to take the time to "pat myself on the back" for every milestone number that I come across, one-hundred is one of those nice, round numbers that is easy to take a moment to recognize.  Things were a little touch and go with this blog too.  I know I went over a month without posting, but that's how life is sometimes.  One of the lessons to be learned with any hobby is how to manage it against the more important things in your life.  That is not to say that hobbies aren't important.  I would argue that creative outlets, in whatever form they may take, are an important part of anyone's life.  But they can't come at the cost of a job, or spouse, or family.  They can prevent you from killing your family though... ;)

I enjoy taking the time to share my thoughts here and I hope that you will continue to enjoy taking the time to read them. 

24 June 2012

This Just In: Missed the Deadline Edition

Good morning Internet denizens.  I just managed to crawl myself out of bed so this post is up a little late.  Sleep however, is a good thing.  Some interesting stories came out this week, and I'm planning some larger posts based on a few of the issues that came up.  But I didn't want to skip my usual news rundown.  So here we go, the big stories of the week.

Free-to-Play is Inevitable? 



Much was made of the news that trickled out that EA/Bioware was considering a free-to-play conversion for Star Wars: The Old Republic at some point in the future.  But then Kotaku published this interview with EA COO Peter Moore.  In it he discusses the future of video gaming in general, and specifically how games are paid for and financed.  He suggests that microtransactions will make their way into every game, and that every game will essentially be paid for by the few who purchase these add-ons while the majority play for free.  The interviewer asks if Moore sees all games adopting this model and this was his reply:

"I think there's an inevitability that happens five years from now, 10 years from now, that, let's call it the client, to use the term, [is free.]"

I would highly recommend reading the entire article and interview.  It is not only relevant from the perspective of MMO's, but anyone who follows the gaming industry in general.  I am preparing a more in-depth post for later in the week on the concept of what exactly "free-to-play" means, both in this context and for MMO's.  So I am going to refrain from more specific commentary here.  But really, do yourself a favor and read the interview.  Love EA or hate them, they are big players in the market and the direction they take will send ripples through the whole industry.

Thank You for your Purchase of Diablo 3, Wait Please...



Speaking of big players in the industry, Blizzard was back in the news for a less than flattering reason as this story broke regarding digital purchases of Diablo 3.  It would seem that Blizzard is having issues with less than scrupulous individuals using hacked and stolen credit cards to purchase copies of the game.  In response to this, Blizzard implemented a policy in which players must wait up to three days after purchasing the game to play the full version.  Until this authorization takes place, the player is restricted to a "trial" version of the game where they are limited to the first Act, a level cap, and cannot access the auction house.

I'm of two minds on this issue.  The first is that Blizzard is trying to protect itself, and its customers against fraud.  When it comes to this, I am very much in the camp of "better safe than sorry."  I don't mind a company being somewhat overzealous if it means protecting my finances and identity.  Somewhat related to this, I can say that when I made my purchase of the lifetime subscription of The Secret World, my financial institution flagged the purchase as "potentially fraudulent" and I had to authorize to them personally.  I did not mind doing this as I knew they were looking out for me.

On the other hand, this is a slightly different set of circumstances.  The money has already changed hands.  Blizzard already has your money, so why do you have to wait to use the product that you paid for?  Some people also say this reflects poorly on Blizzard's decision to have an essentially single-player game be so heavily dependent on Internet connectivity.  While that is still a controversial issue, I don't consider it part of this problem.  It certainly isn't an elegant solution, but I think Blizzard's intentions are good in this case.

Schilling Shut Out 


The news about the bankruptcy and shut down of 38 Studios is sad and unfortunate, and has been commented on both in this blog and in dozens of other places on the 'Net.  But this past week, founder and former baseball player Curt Schilling gave an interview to Boston radio station WEEI where he shed some light on his financial exposure and a bit more of "his side of the story."  In it he states that the money he earned while playing baseball is essentially gone.  Much of his personal savings was invested in the company and he says that "life will be different now."  He also reiterates his criticism of Rhode Island governor Lincoln Chafee, claiming that he was close to securing private financing to keep the studio afloat, but negative comments from the governor scared off potential investors.

While on the one hand it is difficult to feel sorry for a millionaire when so many of us are going through our own financial struggles, and it is true that Schilling's outspoken nature makes him even less likeable to many average folks, I still say there are no winners here.  I think Mr. Schilling really was passionate about what he was trying to do with 38 Studios.  I think he is somewhat of a kid at heart and wanted to use the money and fame he accumulated as a baseball player to fulfill a dream of creating video games.  Unfortunately his financial and technical acumen did not match his athletic ability or his dreams.  So while I don't think anyone will cry over Mr. Schilling's lost personal fortune or the "hardship" he will endure because of it, I think we can all lament the loss of the studio itself, the lives that were impacted, and the games we will never get a chance to play.

22 June 2012

My "Secret" Journey: Prologue Part IV

Almost forgot to post the next segment for the week.  It's been one of "those" kind of days, but thankfully Friday is here and relief is in sight.  Enjoy the post and enjoy your weekend!

Transitions

Medina sobbed and huddled beneath the scorching rock face.  She could run no longer.  The abominations followed no matter where she choose to go, and each direction was the same as the others.  As far as the eye could see stretched a vast, barren plain.  There was nothing but blistering rocks, fiery prominences, and a foreboding empty sky.  It was to this sky that Medina turned her gaze, seeking something familiar, anything to steady herself, but there was nothing to be found.  Suddenly another roar erupted from the horde that was slowly surrounding her.  Again it was the four-winged demon, the beast that had been haunting her for days now, and the buzzing, the constant buzzing never stopped.  Medina lowered her head into her hands and squeezed her fingertips against her temples, trying anything to shut the noise out.  Maybe it would all just go away if the noise would stop...

Suddenly the buzzing coalesced into a voice, a soft, comforting whisper that echoed through Medina's mind.  You cannot run forever, child.  She opened her eyes and blinked frantically, looking around for the source of the voice.  You cannot outrun fate, and the fate of this world is about to be decided.  She looked out from behind the rock that was shielding her and saw the demon horde had stopped advancing.  It stood there, gathered beneath the wings of the massive demon, chattering ominously.  You have but a small role to play, but play it you must.  Suddenly Medina's limbs ignited in a bizarre otherworldly fire.  She screamed and bolted up from beneath the rock, flailing her arms to try and put out the indescribable flame.  You must face your fear.

The fire was a beacon to the demon horde and the grotesque four-winged beast bellowed, ordering its minions to snuff out the puny little blaze.  Medina began to backpedal as the voice dispersed back into the droning buzz from before, but the last few words lingered in her mind... face your fear.

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"Ladies and gentlemen, we are on our final approach to Heathrow.  If you would return your seats and tray tables to their full..."  Medina blinked and struggled to focus as the flight attendants went through the usual series of landing announcements.  She looked and saw Samantha packing up her laptop in the seat next to her.  Glancing around the cabin, she tried to determine if she had cried out in her sleep or made any other sort of scene.  No one seemed to be paying undue attention to her or otherwise taking any notice of her.  Medina sighed in relief and pushed her seat back up.

"Wow did I really sleep the whole way over here?" she asked her friend.  Samantha smiled back wryly.

"I think you could have slept through the apocalypse, Medina.  I even asked if you wanted to watch my movie with me and you didn't even blink."  Medina tried to suppress a shudder at Samantha's mention of the apocalypse.  The last thing she wanted was for her friend to know what exactly had been troubling her dreams, especially not on the verge of their vacation.  Medina already had a reputation for always finding a way to "spoil the fun" and she was determined not to be that person on this trip.

"Probably because it was one of those sappy romantic comedies you can't seem to get enough of," she replied, hoping the weak attempt at humor would conceal how shaky she was feeling inside.

"I'll have you know it was nothing of the sort," Samantha said indignantly.  "Ok, ok... so it was.  But it's not my fault that's all Jennifer Anniston has done since Friends ended!"  Samantha owned the entire series on DVD and practically worshiped Jennifer Anniston in particular.  "She's so much more talented than that.  Why doesn't she branch out?"  Medina smiled and clapped her friend on the shoulder as the plane's wheels hit the ground in London.

"These are life's questions that we will never have answers to."  Medina's mind was full of questions that had no answers.  And none of them had anything to do with Hollywood...

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It was 3 o'clock in the morning.  Medina fumbled with the key to the lock of their rented London flat.  It was difficult to work the mechanism with Samantha slouched over her shoulder.  Finally she fit the key in and gave it a turn.  Stumbling into the living room, they both collapsed on the couch.  Samantha's eyes fluttered softly and she began to chuckle.

"I told ya, Zee..." she slurred as she curled up on the faux leather sofa.  "We are gonna have... the time of our lives."  Barely one day into their London adventure and Samantha wasn't wasting any time.  She had already selected an upscale London nightclub for their first "adventure," and even Medina had to admit it was a good choice, much better than the college hangouts she was used to.  Several men had made "friendly overtures" to her, but none of the overaggressive "pawing" that had driven her from the club scene as an undergrad.  Medina pulled the tie from her hair and let her scarlet trusses loose.

"Yeah Sam, better rest up so we can have the 'time of our lives' again tomorrow."  She crossed over to the linen closet and pulled one of the spare blankets.  Draping it over her friend, she turned off the light and stepped into the bedroom.  The flat was a spacious one; two large bedrooms, a full kitchen, living and dining spaces, and stocked with amenities that had saved them considerable packing space.  Medina didn't really want to know what it had cost Samantha to reserve it.  She felt bad enough "tagging along" on this trip as it was.  She had a feeling she would feel even worse if she knew the full cost of it.

Medina dropped her purse on the nightstand and made her way to the bathroom.  Flipping on the light, she took a long, hard look at herself in the mirror.  At Samantha's insistence she had allowed her friend to "doll her up" a bit with more makeup than she was accustomed to wearing.  She had to admit that it had held up well under pressure.  Even after a full night on the dance floor, she still looked good.  You do have some talents after all, Sam, Medina thought to herself.  Too bad they just don't run to the academic.  She smiled at her reflection, tossed some water on her face, and began to scrub off the "war paint."  Turning back to the living room, she found Samantha sound asleep on the couch.  She double checked the front door locking it securely and then undressed for a shower.

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Feeling a bit more human after washing off the evening's exertions, Medina dressed herself for bed and found herself staring at the ceiling.  Sleep had become her enemy; the four-winged demon, the maddening buzz, and now this ethereal voice.  I AM facing my fears.  Why else would I even be here?  She had crossed her parents, stepped well out of her "comfort zone," and now even in her dreams she is faced with her insecurities.  Is that all it is?  My subconscious punishing me for doing this?  A sense of guilt?  Medina sighed with frustration and pulled the blankets up over her chest.  That would just be my luck.  Even my own brain won't forgive me for trying to have some fun.   She closed her eyes and quickly sleep found her.

But that was not all that found her.  One feature the flat they had rented did lack was air conditioning, so Medina had left the window of her bedroom open to allow more air to flow in.  London was far from the warmest place on earth, but the humidity could make things quite uncomfortable depending on the time of year.  And so as Medina drifted off to sleep, she thought she heard the buzzing yet again.  But this time it was not her mind playing tricks on her.  A small bee slipped through the opening of her bedroom window.  Alighting briefly on the frame, it then flew across the room to where Medina lay.  It danced across her lips, and as her mind shifted into deep sleep, it crawled into her mouth and insisted on being swallowed...

19 June 2012

Is The Secret World for you?

Alright, I have made no qualms about the fact that I am excited about The Secret World.  It is a game that has been on my radar for quite some time, and when pre-orders opened back in April, I immediately took advantage of the lifetime subscription option.  So I was very excited to actually get my hands on the game and see if it was going to meet the expectations that I had for it.  Overall I would have to say that it did... and it did not.  As I said yesterday, I do not want my beta impressions to come off as the ravings of a fanboi.  The game does have some shortcomings, and it will certainly not be for everyone.  With all that in mind then, here is my "Three UP and Three DOWN" impressions of TSW based on this past weekend's beta.

UP-  Character Development, Classless but not Roleless 

I will say right off the top that I am a big fan of the way TSW approaches character development.  There are no classes in the game.  That is to say, you are never "locked" into a certain set of skills and abilities.  Every weapon and every skill in the game can be learned by a single character.  Now the biggest misconception that people have at this point is that this means that TSW is "roleless" as well, akin to what Guild Wars 2 is attempting to do (but doesn't really pull off, but that's a discussion for another time.)  But this is not the case.  In its group content, TSW still relies on the "Trinity" archetypes of tank, healer, and damage dealer.  The ways these roles are performed are more "loose" than more standardized MMO's like World of Warcraft or RIFT but the roles do exist.  So do not mistake the "open" development system for a non-trinity grouping mechanic.

This open system allows you to create basically any kind of character you want, and to change your combat abilities at will in order to meet new challenges.  If you want to play a fireball slinging "mage," you can focus on those skills.  The sky really is the limit, but you have to remain open to new possibilities.  What I mean by that is, TSW's content is not easy.  Even the "solo" missions will occasionally confront you with an enemy or a situation that will require you to use different skills and tactics to overcome it.  This will be a turn off to some, but the answers are always available.  You just have to think about your character and your capabilities in a different way than you are used to in most MMO's.

UP-  Combat System 

You have heard me talk before about combat "feel" in an MMO.  There is just something about the flow, the pace, and the style of combat in a game like this.  It is a difficult concept to put into words and for me, either a game has it or it doesn't.  Well in my opinion TSW has it.  The combat feels responsive, it feels fun, and it adds just enough of something "new" to differentiate it from its "hotbar/cooldown" brethren.  There are over 500 abilities to be learned in TSW but your character can only use fourteen of these at any one time, seven active abilities and seven passive abilities.  I love this in and of itself for two reasons.  First, it forces you to think creatively about combinations of abilities and creating synergies.  And second, you avoid the situation of having your screen totally overwhelmed with buttons and icons for abilities.

And going out and using those abilities is a blast.  As I said, the combat just feels good.  Like with Age of Conan, Funcom has tossed in a few extras here to add just a bit of spice to what might otherwise be fairly standard MMO combat.  First off, enemies with special abilities will often lay out an area of effect for those abilities and give you time to evade it.  If you can move out of the targeted area, you can avoid the attack.  This is helpful in solo content, and vital in group content.  And to assist with this, Funcom has included a "dodge" mechanic.  Simply tap a directional key twice in succession and your character will dive/jump/roll in that direction.  This ability has a cooldown so you can't just somersault your way through a fight, but it does allow you to evade those targeted attacks.  Put it all together and TSW's combat does just enough things different to set itself apart and still "feel" fun.

UP-  Atmosphere and Story 

Star Wars: The Old Republic really upped the ante in terms of the stories being told in the MMO space.  TSW is not that ambitious, but it does go above and beyond the average in setting the mood, creating a story, and giving you a reason to do many of the things you are doing.  As with SW:TOR much of the quest-givers dialogue is voiced.  Clicking on an NPC to start a quest almost always starts a cutscene where the NPC will give you some background or explanation for what you are about to do.  However unlike SW:TOR these are not interactive scenes.  Your character is always a "silent protagonist" and does not participate in the conversation.  There are no branching dialogue options or any form of interaction.  I think this strikes a good balance between SW:TOR's "story is everything" approach, and the typical MMO where every quest devolves into "skip the text, kill ten rats, repeat." 

Along with the storytelling, the game also excels at setting the mood.  Now I can only speak to the two zones that were open in this beta, but in both there is a definite sense of dread and foreboding.  I won't go so far as to call it a "survival horror" mood like you might hope to find in a game like Resident Evil, but you definitely get the sense that you are in a place where things have gone horribly wrong.  The lighting, the music, everything lends itself to a sense of the macabre and it does a good job of making you feel like you are in this world that they are trying to create.

DOWN-  Missing Key Features 

Ok as I said, I don't want to overlook the game's problems and it does have some.  The first is that several key features of the game were still missing as of this test.  Now I know, it is still in beta, but we are less than two weeks now from early access and exactly two weeks from launch.  That is very late in the process to still have some very important features not implemented.  Among these are guilds (or as TSW calls them, cabals), banks, and the auction house.  These are not just "quality of life" features.  They are necessities.  No MMO should launch with these features not in place and if TSW were to do so, I would be the first to call them out for it, no matter how big a fan of the game I might be. 

The fact that these features are not yet in the game for testing is a troubling sign.  One might think that they would be fairly simple to implement, but my experience with other games would hint that is not the case.  When RIFT put guild banks in there were some major issues with items being lost, entire banks being wiped out, etc.  And anyone who has played SW:TOR can tell you what a mess using the AH in that game is.  So what may appear simple on the surface is rarely that simple to implement.  Can Funcom get these things into the game and functioning properly in less than two weeks?  I don't know, but they had better.

DOWN-  Performance Issues 

Reports have been all across the board in terms of how TSW performs on various machines.  People with amazing rigs report great performance, but others with similarly powerful machines claim major problems.  And it is the same for minimal machines as well.  Some say they can play just fine, others claim it is unplayable.  All I can report here is my own experience and what I got was rather uneven.  My CPU/GPU are no longer top of the line, but they are well above average, and certainly well above the recommended hardware for this game.  Yet the client's performance was very inconsistent.  I could not even identify specific situations or effects that would cause a slowdown.  In some games I know heavy particle effects or shadows can give me trouble.

Which brings me to my other complaint on this issue... the video settings do not allow you to configure specific effects options like particle effects, shadows, etc.  It just has a series of sliders with some vague descriptions of some graphical effects.  Further, it says that if you alter the settings (ie. put one slider at say 4 and another at 2) that technical support will not assist you as you are not using a recommended "setting."  Now in all fairness, that may just be a holdover of beta, I don't know.  But the lack of flexibility and customization in the graphics options is another real problem in my opinion, especially for those at either the top or the bottom of the performance spectrum.

DOWN-  Content Concerns

I would call this final issue a "provisional concern" because obviously not all the content was available in the beta, but what I did see left me concerned enough to make it an issue.  TSW will launch with eight zones, two of which were open in this beta.  I played heavily on Friday, quite a bit more on Saturday, and hardly at all on Sunday.  In that time I easily finished all the content in the first zone (Kingsmouth) and made decent progress into the second zone (The Savage Coast.)  I did not attempt either of the dungeons that were open in this beta.  But altogether I still completed a significant amount of the available content in a fairly limited amount of playing time.  Even broken into shorter sessions, completing the first zone in its entirety could easily be completed in a couple days.

Now there is no way to know if the unplayable zones in Egypt and Transylvania will be as easy to complete.  There is no way to judge that at this point.  That is why I called it a "provisional concern."  In addition, Funcom has already said that while large group content (ie. raids) will not be available at launch, they will be coming soon after, and each current dungeon will have an "elite" setting as well.  So there will be other options for content.  I just have a feeling... the game will feel a little shallow at first.  And I am afraid the "content locusts" are going to devour what is available inside of a couple weeks and take to the forums to declare they have nothing to do.  Maybe I'm wrong.  Maybe the later zones are much deeper, but right now I am concerned.

Overall Impressions 

This game is not going to please everybody.  Even the solo content will require a level of effort that is more than the casual MMO player will probably want to give, having been "spoiled" by the mindless leveling content of games like WoW and RIFT.  The game is difficult.  Random enemies you encounter in the course of average missions WILL kill you, sometimes with regularity.  The first time it happened to me, my jaw literally dropped.  I hadn't been "challenged" like that by MMO solo content since the original WoW.  The lack of class and role structure will also turn some off.  As I said, roles are present but the implementation is much looser, meaning you have to be willing to adapt.  If your attitude is, "I am DEEPS and that is all," your usefulness to a group will be almost zero.  You have to be willing to swap in a heal, or a snare, or a buff, or something to help overcome a particular boss or encounter.

But to me, that is all a good thing.  Frankly I want this game to have a "niche" or cult following.  I want it to have a small, loyal following.  I'm tired of chasing the "next big thing."  I don't want to be WoW or SW:TOR.  I would rather be a part of a small, dedicated, and caring community than a part of a faceless mass just consuming content.  So as long as it has enough players to be profitable, that's good enough for me. 

18 June 2012

A Bit of Patience

I am afraid I must ask for a bit of patience on your part.  I would like a bit more time to condense and prepare my thoughts on this weekend's The Secret World beta.  I know I am very enthusiastic about this game, but there are also things I saw that concerned me.  So I don't want my summary to come across as either too "fanboi" or too "alarmist."  That's why I'd like to take another day to sort it out and make sure it strikes the proper balance to give you, my readers, the best overall impression of the game that I can.  Consider this a... Monday FUBAR and if this is the worst thing that goes wrong today, I would consider it a good Monday indeed.  See you all tomorrow!

17 June 2012

This Just In: The Sky is Falling Edition

So first off, a happy Father's Day to all the proud poppa's out there!  This week some pretty big stories involving some big games hit the MMO wire so let's get right down to business, shall we?

Big News from the Galaxy Far, Far Away



There were two big news items involving Star Wars: The Old Republic this week.  The first was the beginning of the promised free character transfers.  As I mentioned a few days ago, this is Bioware's solution to the many low population servers that have been plaguing the game since the launch fever died off.  Unfortunately for them, I believe some of their inexperience with MMO's is showing through here.  Their communication on their long term goals and the eventual disposition of servers has been murky at best and downright confusing at worst.  Of course this is all to avoid the outright use of the term "server merge/consolidation," which is the word of death for an MMO.

Many MMO bloggers including Green Armadillo over at PvD and Keen and Graev believe that the merges will be a good thing for the game in the long term, and I happen to agree.  Anything that allows more of your players to actually play together is a good thing, and if Bioware hadn't been so ignorant in the first place and assumed that more of the "tourists" would stay, they wouldn't be in this position now.  I don't know what a stable population estimate for SW:TOR will end up being, but it is painfully obvious that the hundred some North American servers are far too many for the population that they do have.

The other bit of news from SW:TOR was a bit shocking.  Two interviews appeared where high level Bioware or EA officials commented on the game eventually adopting some form of a "free-to-play" model.  The first interview was pulled from the web shortly after appearing, but another one managed to stick around.  The more I think about it though, the less it shocks me.  Bioware and EA have a lot of experience with the microtransaction format through DLC focused games like the Dragon Age, Mass Effect, and Battlefield franchises.  So I suppose it isn't that much of a stretch that they would switch SW:TOR from a straight subscription to a "freemium" format where content updates are made available through DLC packages or free to subscribers. Heck if I could only buy the content I knew I would use and not pay per month, I might get back into the game on an interim basis.  Its story focused format actually lends itself well to such a pricing structure.  Guess we'll see where this goes.

Thanksgiving in Tyria?



The Guild Wars 2 hype train continues down the tracks unabated.  The game just had another beta weekend on the week before last, and its rabid devotees continue to drool all over the 'Net in anticipation of its release.  Well fear not fanbois, relief may finally be in sight.  Gamebreaker is reporting based on NCSoft market forecasts in Korea that a Q3 release for the game is likely, with the Thanksgiving holiday being the latest that they would anticipate the game being released.  Of course these are still just estimates, but NCSoft is a publicly held company in Korea and so they are obligated to report certain data to investors, and investment banks and stock holders make estimates based on that data.

ArenaNet is maintaining a Blizzard-esque "when it's done" stance towards the official release date of the game, refusing to commit to any specific date aside from "2012."  The "AAA" launch calendar is pretty empty for the remainder of 2012 after The Secret World hits at the beginning of July, so I can't imagine that ANet is worried about jockeying for position.  But just like SW:TOR the hype and anticipation for this game is reaching absurd levels.  And just like Bioware, ANet is partly to blame for this with their very ambitious statements about changing MMO's as we know them.  I've said it before and I'll say it again.  I'm sure it will be a good game, but I highly doubt it will be the "game changer" that people think it will be. 

Habbo Hubba Hubba? 



I wouldn't typically run a story like this, because "games" like this do not interest me at all, but the way the law interacts with online entertainment and video games does interest me, so I wanted to talk about it a little.  So there's this social "game" called Habbo Hotel.  It's kinda like... I don't know, Second Life I guess?  Like I said, I don't care about these type of things so I'm not even entirely sure how to describe them.  I suppose the best way to think about it is just a chat box with a fancy graphical interface.  Regardless, a reporter from a British television station went "undercover" into the game posing as a teenager to see what this virtual teenager hangout was like.  Well needless to say she was not impressed with what she found, describing it as "very sexual, perverse, violent and pornographic."

Her report led to several investors withdrawing their support from the game and stores to stop carrying the "game cards" that gave players points to spend in the game.  In response, the company maintaining the game and website has "muted" all chat on the site, essentially shutting the game down entirely.  The long term disposition of the game is unknown at this point.  Now I'm not going to lament the shutdown of an online porno hub, nor am I going to scorn the reporters for exposing it.  And while I am not an advocate for censorship on the web, I am an advocate of common sense.  Parents need to be aware of what their children are doing on the web, and the purveyors of web content need to be honest about what they are offering.  If a service like Habbo is going to make no effort to police its community and allow it to become highly sexualized, then they need to be honest with their users about that, whatever the consequences may be.


Tune in tomorrow for my "after action" report on my weekend in The Secret World's open beta!

15 June 2012

Making the Same Mistake Twice

You may recall I've noted on this blog before that RIFT had the best and smoothest launch of any MMO that I have participated in.  Granted my experience does not go back as far as most, but in reading commentaries from those who were part of earlier launches, I don't think it is much of a stretch for me to say that RIFT's still ranks among the best.  But Trion did make one key mistake with RIFT's launch, and it had little to do with client stability, or bugs, or many of the errors that typically plague an MMO in its birth pangs.  No the mistake Trion made was opening too many servers

The launch of an MMO is almost without exception its busiest time.  The most players are interested.  The most players are trying to play.  And consequently the servers are hammered leading to potential queue times, and nobody wants to be stuck in a queue waiting to play the game.  So what do you do?  Why you open more servers of course, give those people more places to play.  And while this seems like the "no brainer" solution, it really is a short-sighted decision with negative long-term consequences.  Once the launch "rush" is over, once the "one month tourists" have sampled your game and departed, what you are left with is a plethora of empty servers and frustrated players that have committed to your game. 

This is where "corporate PR" kicks in and looks for a way to spin what inevitably has to occur... server merges and consolidations.  But that term is poison in the MMO community.  Once you utter it, the sharks smell the blood in the water and declare your game a failure.  In Trion's case, their gimmick was "trial servers."  Prior to the debut of RIFT Lite, one of the promotions in the game was free trial weekends for people to sample the game.  So Trion took most of their low population servers, kicked all the "real" players off them, and labeled them "trial servers" to service these weekend promotions.  No servers were actually closed off or shut down, but this quite obviously is a case of server merging/consolidation.  Trion was able to "spin" it as something else and avoid that dreaded term. 

Fast forward to this week and we see the same scenario playing out again, this time in the case of Star Wars: The Old RepublicSW:TOR got off to much the same start as RIFT; a very smooth launch, high expectations, and high demand.  And then Bioware made the exact same mistake that Trion did, they overestimated the long-term interest in their product.  They opened a ridiculous number of servers and within months, many of those servers were reduced to virtual ghost towns as the "tourists" departed.  This was perhaps even more evident in SW:TOR because its numbers were even higher than RIFT's at the start and its story based model led to many players, even highly interested players, leaving the game once the story content was exhausted.

Did Bioware truly believe that their game could buck the trend in MMO's and maintain the same level of concurrent players and server populations after the launch boom?  I do not pose this question rhetorically.  I truly would be interested to know.  Did they really think their game was that much different or would be so popular that it would essentially be the only MMO since World of Warcraft to grow appreciably after launch?  Many other bloggers including myself have commented on the fact that WoW needs to be viewed as the exception that it is, not the rule for MMO populations and growth.  It is an enigma likely to never be repeated.  Why any MMO developer, be it Trion, or Bioware, or anyone else would expect to duplicate that at this point is absurd.

So now Bioware finds itself in the same position as Trion, desperately trying to "spin" away from the dreaded server merge/consolidation admission.  But unlike Trion, Bioware seems to be handling it poorly.  There is no PR "gimmick" like Trion's trial servers.  Instead they have all but admitted that shutting down servers is their long-term goal, citing new "super servers" that they hope to create.  There seems to be little rhyme or reason to some of the transfers they have set up.  Medium servers transferring to other medium servers, etc.  And communication from Bioware regarding the long-term disposition of these supposed "super servers" has been murky at best. 

I truly hope other MMO companies with upcoming launches are watching, specifically folks like Funcom (The Secret World), ArenaNet (Guild Wars 2), and Carbine (WildStar).  Learn a lesson from Trion and Bioware.  Keep your expectations in line.  In this gamer's opinion, a Day 1 queue is more acceptable than a Day 100 dead server.  Don't make the same mistake twice.

14 June 2012

My "Secret" Journey: Prologue Part III

Due to "popular demand" from my new guildies, I'm pushing out the next segment of my character bio this week.  Three weeks to go until early access begins.  How much more torment is poor Medina going to have to endure? 

Better Late than Never

Medina darted to her left as another burst of flame erupted from the ground in front of her.  Her face was streaked with sweat, her hair loose and frazzled, her clothes stuck to her skin.  She turned to look behind her and saw the four-winged demon bellowing as it continued to give her chase.  Crowded around its feet were a mad assortment of smaller creatures; zombies, enraged insects, and bizarre mutants she could not even put a name to.  Each direction she turned simply brought more horrors into view.  They were coming from everywhere.  There was no end in sight.  Medina gave one last fitful scream as her legs finally gave out beneath her.  She collapsed on the hot, broken earth and waited for the nightmares to consume her.  As she gave in to the despair, the persistent buzzing intensified.  It got louder and louder as the creatures encircled her, until finally....

*BUZZ*

Medina screamed and shot up out of the bed, her phone buzzing its persisted alarm on the nightstand next to her.  Her eyes frantically searched the room, scarcely able to believe where she was.  She was hot, panicked, and exhausted, her nightshirt stuck to her body like a second skin.  Finally convinced that she was safe at home and not about to be dinner for demons, she slumped back down into the bed and began to sob.  What is wrong with me?  What is happening to me?  This is supposed to be the start of... suddenly she shot back up and reached for her phone... Oh my god!  London!  The plane!  Sure enough she had missed her alarm by over an hour.  She quickly switched it off and flew up out of the bed.  Flipping through her notifications, she saw two text messages and a voicemail all from Samantha.  Oh god, oh god... I have to hurry!  She peeled off her nightshirt and dialed Samantha's number.  Her friend picked up almost immediately.

"Zee?  Is that you?  Where are you?  Our plane leaves in an hour."  The concern in her friend's voice was palpable.

"I know, I know.  I'm sorry.  I'm on my way now.  Just... stall them if you have to.  You're good at it.  You'll think of something!"  Medina was desperate and it carried through in her voice.

"Ok, ok Medina.  I'll... do what I can.  Are you alright?  This isn't like you at all."  For all her "party girl" tendencies, Samantha really did mean well, and really did like Medina.  This wasn't like her friend at all, and she knew it.

"I..." Medina's voice shook as she tried to steady herself.  "I'll tell you later.  Just don't let that plane leave without me.  Tell 'em you have a sick grandmother or something."  It was a poor attempt at humor, but it was the best she could come up with under the circumstances.  She heard Samantha chuckle softly on the other end of the line.

"I'll handle it, ok?  Just get here,"  Samantha replied. 

Medina thanked her and quickly hung up.  She dashed into the bathroom and tried to freshen herself up.  No time for a shower, but she was about to spend the entire day on a plane anyway, not much point in trying to look "impressive."  She quickly slapped on the outfit she had laid out the day before, pulled her hair back, grabbed her bags and rushed for the door.  As she was locking up her apartment, she swore she kept hearing the buzzing sound from her dreams.  She shook her head and tried to block it out.  This is no time to go crazy, Medina.  You've got a plane to catch.  She ran down to her car, tossed her bags in the back, and drove off.

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"You made it!  Thank goodness.  I didn't even have to come up with a good sob story."  Samantha beamed at Medina and hugged her briefly as she rushed up to the terminal gate where their plane was waiting.  It was a close thing, and Medina did have to come up with a "sob story" to get through the security checkpoint in time.  Thankfully she found a TSA agent who was a sucker for a pretty girl with a sad story.

"Gee and here I was hoping to test your creativity," Medina replied playfully.  The short drive to the airport had given her time to steady her thoughts and she felt a bit more like herself now.  The nightmares hadn't left her completely, but she was able to focus on the here and now.

"Wait till we get to London, then I'll show you creativity."  Samantha winked at her and tugged her to the gate.  "Now let's get going!" 

Seats on the plane were scarce as they were among the last to board.  They were able to find a couple of seats together towards the back of the plane, and even more miraculously, space in the overhead bins for their carry on bags.  As they settled in, the flight crew went through the usual safety lectures that any frequent flier has heard a hundred times.  Yes, that seat cushion will save your life after the plane hits the water at several hundred miles per hour.  Medina tried to smile as the plane taxied to takeoff.  As they lifted off into the air, Samantha gave a little cheer in the seat next to her.

"And away we go!  I swear Zee, you won't regret this."  Medina grimaced slightly and punched her friend on the shoulder.

"No, but you might if you don't stop calling me that," she told her.  Samantha rubbed her shoulder, feigning injury and pouted her lips.

"Yes ma'am, Miss Medina ma'am," Samantha replied as she gave a faux salute.  "Just don't forget to have a little fun, ok?"

"Yes ma'am, Miss Samantha ma'am," Medina mimicked in response as she settled back into her seat.  Flying was never something she much enjoyed and when she did do it, she preferred to sleep as much as possible.  This was going to be a long flight no matter what.  Do I dare try and sleep?  What if... she sat up and looked at the packed airliner around her.  What if those nightmares happen here?  I can't do that.  I can't... She swallowed hard and slumped back into the seat again.  But despite her concerns, by the time the plane had reached its cruising altitude, Medina was fast asleep.  Fast asleep, but not sound asleep...

13 June 2012

A Positive Development

Well things are looking up for me in the MMO world these days.  One of the biggest things that ruined my potential enjoyment of World of Warcraft towards the end, as well as RIFT and Star Wars: The Old Republic was the fact that I had no in-game friends to speak of and no guild to play with.  I am really big on the social aspect of MMO's and when that is missing for me, it is very difficult to enjoy my time in the game, no matter how good of a game it might be.  As I have said before, I would probably still be playing either WoW or RIFT if I had any social connections in either game.  And you might recall that I staged a little "campaign" here on my blog to try and find a guild for my SW:TOR characters.  I'm actually kind of glad nothing really came of that.  The game really is a bore at max level.  I'm not sure even a guild would have helped hold my interest there.

So I was very excited to find a guild for the upcoming The Secret World.  They seem to be a friendly bunch with a variety of people from different walks of life, and the overall age of the guild trends a bit higher, which is also a positive in my mind.  I have nothing against young gamers, I used to be one myself.  But at this point in my life, I prefer the company of peers to that of adolescents.  Age is no guarantee of maturity, as I have met my fair share of "children" in their 30's, but let's just say the odds are more in your favor with an older group.

I've been active on their forums for the past few days and it feels like this will be a good fit for me.  There is a common interest in the game itself, "theorycrafting," role-play, even some of our real life hobbies.  The guild leaders are a husband/wife duo that have been running MMO's guilds for several years now.  Overall I am feeling really good about this development and I hope that between this, and my earlier decision to go "lifetime" on TSW, that this game and this guild will be my MMO "home" for a long time.  I never wanted to be a "game hopper," or a "guild hopper."  I've always tried to be loyal to the people that are loyal to me.  The problem is that, for me at least, those people always ended up changing and leaving me behind somehow. 

This weekend also marks the third of TSW's open beta weekends.  This time they are taking the "training wheels" off a bit and opening the game's second zone, as well as two dungeons.  Funcom announced today that the game has "gone gold" and remains on schedule for launch on 3 July.  "Going gold" doesn't mean as much as it used to, and certainly not for an online game that is going to be constantly patched anyway, but it still sounds good in a press release.  Funcom also announced that they have 1.3 million total beta sign ups for the game.  If true, that is astounding to me.  I have always thought this game would be more of a "niche" game in the broader scheme of things.  If it does have that much interest, I truly, TRULY hope Funcom sticks to its vision for this game and doesn't "dumb it down" for the WoW-attuned masses.  That would be a huge personal disappointment.

So that leaves me with a couple things on the "to do" list for the week.  I'm hoping to get the next chapter of my character's story posted this week, and then this weekend I would like to have a full "report" for you on my participation in the open beta.  This will be the first time I've had a guild to play with in a long, long time and I am really looking forward to it again.

11 June 2012

What IS Fun: Part III

In this final installment of my series looking at games I have enjoyed, I'm going to focus solely on the PC and mostly on games with an online component.  Again my purpose here is to give you a bit of insight as to my "gamer DNA," what sort of games I have enjoyed in the past and the types of things I look for in games.  I also hope that it has encouraged you to take your own strolls down "memory lane" and think about those special games from your gaming past.  We all have a cool story or two to tell, otherwise what is the point of having a hobby?  So here we go...

Online in the "Dark Age"


I wasn't into MUD's, although my brother was, so for me my first real experience with online multiplayer was a game called Tradewars 2002.  I had played the game on local BBS's but it really became enjoyable when the Internet as we know it started to emerge and you could access larger BBS systems through Telnet portals.  Local BBS's were typically limited to a single "incoming" line, or maybe a handful if their operators could afford it.  So while a game like Tradewars was technically multiplayer, you rarely actually played it alongside other people on those local boards.  Telnet made the game truly multiplayer as dozens of players could be in the game at the same time and interact with each other.

The game itself was a pretty basic space trading simulation.  I suppose you could consider it a very primitive version of EVE Online.  You made money by hauling commodities from one planet or station to another.  Buy low, sell high, pretty basic stuff.  You could buy different kinds of ships suited to different tasks, and there were a few "special" ships that you could only own under specific circumstances.  You developed planets, colonized them, and defended them against other players.  The trick was to find "dead end" sectors in space that only had one entrance as these were the easiest to defend.  For its time it was a pretty deep game and a lot of fun to play.

Overall I would say that this was my "first MMO."  I know it typically isn't thought of as one, mostly because it doesn't fall in the traditional fantasy genre that many of the early MUD's and other MMO progenitors did, but this is the game that really got me into playing with other people, interacting with them, and enjoying that particular mode of gameplay.  As my Bartle test told me, I am a Socializer, and so the ability to interact with other people while I enjoy my chosen hobby is something that really appeals to me, and Tradewars is where it all started.  It's also where something else started too, but that's not a topic for this blog.

The PC Middle Ages

Much like the "middle period" of console gaming, my access to games was restricted during the adolescence of PC gaming.  It wasn't until my college years that I had exclusive access to a gaming quality PC.  So there is going to be a bit of a "leap" between my first selection here and my next one.  But this game will come as no surprise to anybody as it is widely regarded as one of the best PC games of all time, an assessment that I wholeheartedly agree with.


I played Wolfenstein 3D.  I played DOOM.  But as enjoyable as those games were, it was Half-Life that I enjoyed the most and that truly "changed the game" for shooters in my opinion.  Yes the technology was now available to allow shooters to do many things that they had not in the past, but Half-Life took it one step further in my mind by actually incorporating a deep story into the game experience.  Yeah shooters had stories before, but they were very shallow.  Storm a castle to kill Hitler.  Fight through hellspawn because... well, they are hellspawn.  But Half-Life had a story to tell, and a great story it was.  Even at the end you are left somewhat unsure about what exactly is going on (and the beginning of Half-Life 2 doesn't do much to clear this initial confusion.)  Overall the game was a masterpiece.

But even more than that was its online component.  Again, technology was making things possible in this arena that weren't before and iD Software's Quake series had started the ball rolling in this direction a few years earlier.  But for me, nothing was more fun than the Team Fortress Classic mod for Half-Life.  Man did I love playing this.  Forget Counterstrike.  I'm sorry, never liked it and never will.  For me TFC was where it was at... the different classes, the different maps, I just loved it.  I could sit and play for hours at a time jumping from game to game and server to server hoping to catch a good group with a good back and forth dynamic going.  Easily the most fun I have ever had playing a shooter online.

The Modern World

While I loved online gaming and played various things like TFC and the original Starcraft, I long resisted the concept of paying a subscription for a game.  I was a firm believer that once I paid the box cost, that game was mine and I shouldn't have to pay another dime.  I know, it sounds bizarre considering how strongly I support the subscription model today.  So for many years I avoided the MMO genre and looked at it as something I would never get involved in...... until Guild Wars.  This game changed everything for me.  It was (is) a quasi-MMO in that everything is highly instanced, but it opened the door to MMO's for me, and a person I met there encouraged me to give another game a try, this being a real MMO.  Well I took his suggestion and the rest is history.


As much as I enjoyed Guild Wars and as important as it was as a "milestone" in my development as an online gamer, there really can't be any other choice here but World of Warcraft.  I was already a fan of the series as I had played all the entries in the Warcraft RTS series, even the barely playable original.  I was familiar with the setting, the story, and the characters and so to see things like the Ruins of Lordaeron, go meet Tyrande, or see the Plaguelands was very cool to me.  There isn't much I can say about WoW that hasn't already been said by someone else.  The game just hit all the right notes in ways that MMO's just hadn't in the past.

That is not to say that the game has not declined from what it was, but I would rather focus on the positive here.  For all of its faults and foibles, WoW remains purely fun.  The art style, the music, everything is highly polished and lends itself to a very enjoyable experience.  And the combat system just works.  It is fun to go out and slaughter monsters.  Combat "feel" is a tricky thing and very hard to define, at least for me.  Some games just have it and others just don't.  WoW has it.  RIFT has it.  Star Wars: The Old Republic does not have it.  Runes of Magic does not have it.  What makes the difference?  I really can't put my finger on it.  If I ever figure it out someday, I'll make sure and let you know.  But WoW remains a blast to play.  If I still had a guild or people to call friends there, I would probably still be playing it today.

The Future? 

So what's next?  What is the next game out there that will just be so much fun to play?  Well you guys already know that I have my hopes pined on The Secret World, but what are you looking forward to?  Is there a game out there that has you saying, "Man I can't wait to get my hands on this!"  What is your bet for the "Next Big thing?"

10 June 2012

This Just In: E3 Edition

This week we're going to concentrate on the news coming out of this year's E3.  Many gaming bloggers have already commented that E3 was disappointing in their opinion.  I'm not really sure what they were hoping for or expecting.  MMO news was a little thin, but there wasn't much to expect regarding MMO's specifically.  Blizzard skips conventions like this in favor of their own BlizzCon, so nothing to be expected there.  Upcoming "AAA" titles like Guild Wars 2 and The Secret World are in their final beta phases so there isn't much new to see there either.  I suppose it would have been nice to see more from an upcoming title like The Elder Scrolls Online or WildStar but those games are far enough in the future that there is probably not too much new for their developers to show at this point.  In any case, I picked out the three E3 related stories that most caught my attention.

Wii U?  More like Wii Huh?


Of the three major console companies, Nintendo had the most to gain and the most to lose at this year's E3.  Sony and Microsoft had both previously confirmed that they would be making no announcements regarding a next generation console at this E3.  That left Nintendo as the only one to show off its next gen console, the Wii U.  Reactions to what Nintendo showed were mixed.  Keen and Graev were mostly positive about what they saw.  Others were largely negative, such as this Yahoo! blog.  As always, I will let you draw your own conclusions.

Nintendo has always been a company that has marched to the beat of its own drum, for better or for worse.  When they strike gold, as they did with the original Wii, they tend to do so in a big way.  Similarly when they fail, as with the N64, they also do so in a big way.  Nintendo survives the "lean" times of their big mistakes by riding on the backs of their established franchises.  No matter how badly they screw up, they seem to be able to ride the latest Super Mario or Zelda game through the tough times and emerge unscathed.  But as the competition for our gaming dollar gets ever tighter, and expectations get ever higher, can Nintendo still count on people buying their hardware simply to play the next installment of Zelda?  Time will tell, but right now that feels like a risky bet.

I'm Gonna Watch it!  A Gaming Geek Movie 


So this story has nothing to do with a game specifically, but it was still one of the coolest bits of news to come out of E3 for me.  Disney announced a new animated movie called Wreck It Ralph about a disgruntled video game villain.  Based on the bits from the trailer it promises to be full of cameos from well known video game characters and references to many of our favorite games and franchises.  I especially liked the "support group" meeting that I pulled this screenshot from.  I'm somewhat surprised to see a character like Bowser in there though as I'm sure Nintendo holds a high price for the use of its characters and images.

Needless to say, despite my strong dislike for anything and everything related to Disney, this will be a movie that I will pay money to see.  I don't go to the theater often.  And just to give you an idea of what that means, I have seen exactly TWO movies in the theater in the past four years, those being the Star Trek reboot and the recent Avengers.  So for me to say that I am willing to shell out (especially for a Disney movie) says a lot.  But when people show an interest in my hobbies, I'll show an interest in them.  And this movie looks like it will be a lot of fun.  Heck, maybe it will even end up being the first movie I take my son to go see in person.  He just celebrated his second birthday today.

Vivendi Selling Acti-Blizzard? 



Ok this story didn't come out of E3 specifically, but I did want to have something MMO related in this post, and this story did kind of shock me.  Gamesutra is reporting that Vivendi will discuss selling the Activision-Blizzard segment of its business at a shareholders meeting coming up later this month.  Apparently Vivendi is looking to shore up their assets and views Acti-Blizzard as something they can liquidate in order to create more capital.  Now I'm no expert in economics and would never pretend to be, so while I understand the potential desire to "sell high" and move an asset like Acti-Blizzard while it is of particularly high value, this move strikes me as a little bit of "penny wise, pound foolish." 

I would think that Blizzard is only going to remain profitable over the course of the next few years.  Diablo 3 broke PC sales records.  Mists of Pandaria will likely follow the previous World of Warcraft expansions to huge sales of its own.  Starcraft 2: Heart of the Swarm is on its way "Soon" (tm).  And there is also the pending Project Titan out there as well.  That's just the Blizzard side of things.  Over in the Activision house you still have the very profitable Call of Duty franchise among other titles.  Put it all together and I don't see how Acti-Blizzard isn't going to be an even more attractive commodity in a few years.  So why sell now?


So tomorrow I'll post the final installment of my "What IS Fun?" series.  This one will focus on modern PC games with an emphasis on online multiplayer.  Then later this week I'm hoping to get back to some more topical posts on MMO's, since that's why you all are here right?  Enjoy the rest of your weekend!

09 June 2012

My "Secret" Journey: Prologue Part 2

Here is the next segment of the back story for my character in the upcoming The Secret World.  Again this is to set the stage for my character's eventual "awakening" and initiation into the "Secret World."  And if you happen to know anybody who plans to run an RP oriented Templar Cabal in the game, feel free to point them in my direction.  I'm going to include direct links to the previous chapters of the story at the beginning of each new post.  That way you don't have to hunt through the backlog to pick up specific pieces.  I hope you are enjoying the story!


Prologue: Part I

What We Leave Behind


Sleep did not provide the respite that Medina thought.  Never one with much of a vivid imagination, her dreams that night were consumed with the macabre; the dead walking the earth, vampires and werewolves, portals straight into hell itself.  Medina tossed and turned under the covers, her hair matted to her scalp with sweat.  Each vision was more terrible and more frightening than the one that preceded it, but they did not relent.  And through it all, Medina could hear this faint sound in the background, like a whisper.  It was so quiet that she should not have been able to hear it at all over the thrashing demons and groaning zombies, but it was always there.  It was the faint buzzing of bees...

Suddenly Medina gasped and shot up out of the bed.  She clutched at her chest and looked frantically around the room.  It was just her apartment, no hellspawn, no vampires, no mummies.  She took a deep breath to settle herself and picked up her phone to look at the time.  5am.  Still too early to call home, a chore she was not looking forward to.  Medina tossed her covers aside and went into the bathroom to toss some water on her face.  They aren't going to like this, she thought to herself.  Her parents were about as risk-adverse as she was.  No wonder where she had gotten it from.  She looked at her reflection in the mirror and sighed.  But I want to do this.  I need to do this.  I need to do something for ME.

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"I don't know, dear.  You said you wanted to finish your thesis this summer.  Are you sure this kind of trip is what you should be spending your time on?"  Medina sighed and hoped the sound didn't carry through the phone as she listened to the expected arguments from her mother.

"But I will be working on my thesis, mom!  What better place to get information about the foundations of American government than England?  We'll be there for two weeks.  I'll have plenty of time to dig around in libraries and museums."

"Libraries and museums?" her mother replied, sounding incredulous.  "With Samantha?  Dear, the only thing you'll get a tour of with her are the best pubs and nightclubs in London.  I know she's your friend but she's a distraction.  She isn't good for you."

"I'm 24, mom," Medina said, her voice starting to crack.  She knew her mother would say this but a part of her still hoped for her support.  "I want to do this, I want to go.  I just hoped..." she paused to catch her breath, trying not to break down in tears."  "I had hoped you would be happy for me."

"I'll be happy for you when your thesis is done," was her mother's response.  "I would hate for you to have come all this way and end up short.  But like you said, you're an adult now.  It's your choice."  Medina knew she had to end the conversation before she said something that she would regret.

"I'm sorry you still don't trust me, mom.  I'll bring you and dad back something nice, I promise.  My love to you both."  And with that she hung up before her mother could reply.  She flung herself onto the bed and waited for the tears to come.  I've always tried to be the good one, and they still don't trust me.  How can I ever prove them wrong if they don't give me a chance?  Medina sat up and wiped her eyes.  I'll show them.  I'll find something in London that will prove everything my thesis stands for.  More determined than ever, she picked up her backpack and laptop and headed off to the library.  There was so much still to do before she left.

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"You ready for this, Zee?  Going to be the trip of a lifetime!"  Medina tried not to scowl at Samantha as they finished off their dinner.  "I have all the tours booked, the routes planned, all that's left is the packing!"

"I hope those tours include some libraries, Sam.  I told you I'm planning to make this a 'working trip,'" Medina told her friend.

"I told you they would," Sam beamed at her in response, "Would I let my best friend down?  You'll get all the dirty little books you can dream of, and have some fun whether you like it or not."  Samantha gave Medina a playful pat on the cheek as she stood up with her tray.  "See you at the airport in the morning.  I'd tell you not to be late, but I can't remember the last time you were late for anything."

"I'm not," Medina said wryly, "Unlike some other people I know.  See you then."  She picked up her own tray and headed for the door.  She was already working through her packing list in her mind and could hardly contain her excitement.  The sorrow from her conversation with her mother earlier had been replaced with mounting anticipation.  She had to make this absolutely perfect.  It really had to be the trip of a lifetime.

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That night as Medina lie in bed, her backs packed and stacked against the wall, her anticipation turned into nightmares as the twisted visages from the night before returned to her, even more powerful than before.  She thrashed beneath the sheets as one vision after another assaulted her subconscious.  And through it all was the buzzing of the bees...