May 2009

A Brief Update: Stop Commenting

One of the personal sites that I also host on this web server (for my WoW guild) was hacked and its contents replaced with Russian viagra spam. Although this blog wasn’t affected, I’m going to be restoring the entire server from a backup prior to the attack to be safe, which means any comments made today will be lost. So, don’t make any.

On the other hand, comments made today will disappear, so go nuts! It’s like the old-school server backup wars in UO!

Edit: No rollback will be necessary. Carry on with the server war, though!

Darkfall Update 2: In Which Some Darkfall Is Played

So, with little fanfare, apparently Darkfall’s released now! The store is open all 24 hours that most days have, and if you want to buy it, by cracky, it seems you can. So I did. After a long download, and a long install, and a long patch, finally, I was ready to master the game of Darkfall. AND MASTER IT I SHALL. verily.

I decided, given the recent foofrah about another website that dared to say unkind things about the One True PvP Game, that when writing these updates, I would follow some basic ground rules. To wit:

I would keep an open mind. Sure, Darkfall has already become almost legendary in its community’s ….uncompromising attitude, but forum hijinks and what occurs within an MMO are almost always two different things. (See: Shadowbane) By god, if there is enjoyment to be had, I would find it! Note: I enjoy killing people in video games, so this shouldn’t be that hard!

I would be an anonymous player. No trading on net.fame here! (Although given the history of this blog and Darkfall, it may be more of a self-defense mechanism.)

I walk through the valley of the shadow of death, but Ayu-chan will comfort me.

I will walk through the valley of the shadow of virtual death, but Ayu-chan will comfort me.

And most importantly, I would listen to appropriate music while playing. This was difficult. What is the most appropriate soundtrack for the dark, harsh, brutal lands of Darkfall? Evanescence? Mercyful Fate? Epica? Type O Negative? Nightwish? Mayhem? Finally I settled on something I felt would help me keep the proper attitude. I would not play Darkfall without listening to music by the Empress of Tokyo Pop, Ayumi Hamasaki.

With that, it was time to play Darkfall.

Or at least, try.

The patcher for Darkfall is… let’s just call it finicky. Perhaps it’s the first step in the long culling process to make sure you’re really ready for Darkfall. Sometimes it would display that it was patching. Sometimes it would display that I had a position in the queue (despite there not being a queue, that I could tell). And sometimes, it would just say, well, this:


Mind you, this is with no “browser and instant messaging applications” open. I was kind of at a loss here for a bit. I checked Darkfall’s technical support, but Darkfall doesn’t have any, nor a technical support forum (even though the in-game help refers to it), nor any apparent CS that I could find, or a manual, or even a README.TXT file. Clearly I was on my own for figuring this out. Fine, I’m hard core, I’m PLAYING DARKFALL. Well, not really, yet. I’m trying to. But, this is another test, and I CAN HANDLE IT. I did have Ayumi’s “Rainy Day” playing in Windows Media Player. Perhaps Darkfall didn’t like “Rainy Day”. I switched to “Step You” and Darkfall launched fine. Fine, everyone’s a critic.

Oh, HELL no.

Oh, HELL no.

The next step involved creating a character. Choices involved picking between the ugliest race ever to be seen in an MMO since Mythic decided undead gremlins would do well for an expansion – and of course, the description tells you that they are dark, emo elves that hate EVERYONE. Well, that’s nice. Then there’s the nice light elves, that I probably should have picked because they had a 0.5% archery bonus or something, but, yeah, elves. No. Then you had the Mahrin, which look like just the thing for aspiring PKers who want you to be killed, then raped, by a huge furry bear. This would be amusing normally, but I already have a Second Life account. So I just picked human, and went through my customization options, which mostly involved piercings.

I made a female character, because if I’m going to play Darkfall, I’m going to by god PLAY DARKFALL, and ensure that the rape references I was fully expecting when breaking my “keeping an open mind” rule would at least be heterosexual in nature. I named her after my favorite NPC in Everquest, and we were off!

I logged in, and was completely naked save for a leather bikini and a dagger that was helpfully called useless in the mouseover. Yeah, this is going to be fun. HARDCORE FUN.


In the grim world of Darkfall, there is only leather bikini.

So, after a few minutes of goblinsmashing and wrenching items off of their carcasses, here you can see some good things about Darkfall. The world itself is pretty well rendered, with nice use of shadowing. You can also see damage modeling where goblins violently objected to my stealing their things. So far, so good.

Then you have the not so good parts. (Note to Darkfall partisans eager to yell EUROGAMER in my face, some notes: yes, this is only after a few hours of play. Also I know that the forums have helpful newbie guides that are only somewhat wildly out of date. Also yes I know you are supposed to join a guild within seconds of opening a Darkfall account or you are a loser and should pray for death. Also yes I know only newbs use anything besides archery and magic missile. Also yes I play World of Warcraft and enjoy it. On an RP server. Eating roast piggeth.)


What, you needed to know MORE? Carebear.

First is the polish. Or rather, the lack thereof. I’ve already hit on the difficulty in just getting Darkfall to launch. A good portion of the user interface has “This button is temporarily disabled” placeholders. Others, like taking screenshots within the game or shifting camera angles, apparently don’t work. A disturbing amount of in-game text is misspelled or otherwise grammatically mangled. The animations… um… humans don’t move like that. It’s very distracting when in third person view and watching your character have such a strange gait that you want Dr. House to tell you it’s not lupus. The combat animations are… clumsy. Compared with the well-executed world art, it’s quite dissonant.

Of course, that has little to do with gameplay. I’d like to tell you about the gameplay, but I can’t do a good job of it, since I simply don’t know that much. The in-game documentation consists of a helpfile that is enough information to get you into combat mode and little else, although it does helpfully tell you about cannons and warhulks and mechanaughts or whatever the hell else it taunts you with, but it neglects to explain the magic system, beyond a very cursory “drag the icon to your hotbar” introduction. Even with the low bar set by ‘documentation’ in other MMOs, this sets a new low.

What you do learn quickly is that Darkfall’s interface is complex. Or, put another way, cumbersome. To attack something, you unsheathe your weapon with the R key, and then swing/shoot (Oblivion-style, in real time – which is a point in its favor and seems, at least with first experimenting, to work well). Once something dies, it spawns a grave. You then press R to sheathe your weapon, then highlight the grave, then press F to open it, then press B to open your own backpack, and then hurriedly try to drag each item, one by one, into your backpack before someone else opens up the grave and helps themselves. I’m sure there’s a perfectly valid justification for this involving slowing down player looting and realism and tactical decisions and whatnot, but when your first experience is fumbling around pointing vaguely at a gravestone while other goblins whale at your back and other players helpfully loot your kills for you, there tends to be fewer second experiences.

"someone else" knows what's up.

"someone else" knows what's up.

One problem with the client is the fact that most of the interface is actually a web application. This means that there’s a significant delay when opening a dialog and seeing the browser instantiate in the dialog box, and also that the dialog is usually focused on, say, the bottom fourth of what you’re actually looking at, and you’ll need to resize the dialog and scroll around to find, say, a guild listing. This is, like much else in Darkfall apparently, serviceable after a fashion, but only just. The irritants pile up quickly.

Of course, I’m sure most people reading this and having followed the Darkfall saga here, you would probably expect me to regale you with tales of random PKing, abusive “suck it up” tells, and the like. Well, that didn’t happen. The few users I saw while playing were… quiet. Also obviously not new, since they were in full armor as opposed to my leather bikini and using arrows with wild abandon whereas I had to painstakingly collect mine from goblin corpses (I suspect they were there to harvest them). They did loot my kills whenever possible, but didn’t try to flag or otherwise be griefy. I suspect they really didn’t care enough to. Not as dramatic, but more realistic. What, are they going to steal my goblin axe?

But of course, the fun in Darkfall is in joining a clan, right? And laying waste to your enemies! I bet that’s lots of fun, especially as a level zero character that specializes in running away. We’ll see. But for now, enjoy some Darkfall theme music.


The Unbearable Lightness Of Stranglethorn Vale

Richard Bartle explains in great detail exactly what goes through an MMO designer’s mind when playing one of the more painful zones in WoW. Except he rather likes it, see.

So, my view is a bit different. As I noted, I actually see Stranglethorn Vale (STV) as one of Blizzard’s less well designed zones. To wit:

  • It’s too large, and until very recently there was no easy way to move from one end of the zone to the other. While ideally, as Bartle noticed, there is a slow progression from one end of the zone to the other, realistically players will not play through the entire zone in one sitting. This is especially annoying for Alliance players – they have a small NPC hub, without a “innkeeper” resting area, in the northern end of the zone, while Horde players have a more central location, with an innkeeper, to work from. This is really the largest problem with the zone – it’s just too large. And because it’s too large, it keeps you there far too long. What may have given you a sense of place and wonder at level 30, to put it mildly, no longer does by level 45. (Another zone, Dustwallow Marsh, was recently revamped specifically to give players a place to escape to during that level range.)
  • The quest design relies far too much on “kill 10 of these. OK, kill 10 of these! OK, hey, kill 15 of these.” Yes, that’s inherently what WoW (or any Dikumud PVE) game play is. But those sorts of concentrated kill quests, while gravy to powergamers looking for the easiest way to leverage the mindless button pressing that destroys them of everything that makes them human, really highlight the artificiality of the enterprise. And that’s what most WoW quest design manages to hide very well. You’re not just killing 10 wolves, you’re saving a troll village from starvation or whatnot. Sure, it’s just a storytelling veneer, but it’s important veneer. It also helps break up the inherent tedium involved in “kill 10 of this, fetch 5 of that” questing. And because WoW is usually so good at this smoke-and-mirror hand waving style of quest-driven storytelling, when it breaks down, it’s notable. And STV is an excellent example of where this breaks down.
  • Hitting more on the specifics of faulty quest design as opposed to the content, STV is where players begin to be punished in earnest by poorly thought out world design. When you have too many players hunting the same thing in the same area, you either encourage cooperation or competition. However, WoW by its very nature as a solo-friendly MMO rabidly discourages cooperation (at least until it’s hit forcibly over your head when you switch to end-game raiding), so very few people actually think “Hmm – we’re all hunting for 10 panthers, we should group up and kill them together!”. Instead, they think “Hmm, we’re all hunting for 10 panthers, I BETTER TAG THEM FIRST!”. Other poorly thought out mechanics include the “Green Hills of Stranglethorn” mega-collection quest (which the author himself is on record as regretting as “the worst quest in WoW”) which usually serves as a focus of inventory-related frustration for the intended new player audience and as powergaming grist for those already familiar with the zone, and some quests with an insanely low drop rate for quest-related drops that, again, encourage frustration over fun.

So, that’s generally what I think of when I remember that zone – long, tedious, lots of panthers, and an abiding hatred for Hemet Nesingwary. A hatred, by the way, which Blizzard gave a knowing wink to in Northrend – after Nagarand, aka STV 2.0, reuses the kill-20-panthers quest design yet again to even more wretched excess – when you can actually start killing off Hemet’s buddies. Generally, if a well-regarded part of your content involves killing off a quest giver, that may be a sign people didn’t like those quests.

A lot of what Bartle writes on STV is interesting, especially as it relates to its quest design. He definitely comes at looking at STV from a different angle than I do. Specifically:

    Well no, because these quests are stepped: the levels appropriate for the tiger mastery steps are 31, 33, 35, 37; for the panther mastery steps they’re 31, 33, 38, 40; for the raptor mastery steps they’re 34, 36, 41, 43. The final boss is also 43, but elite (so "bring friends"). This interleaving allows for variety, and it despatches the players off to various different parts of STV where the target creatures lie, thereby causing happy interactions with other quests relating to areas they pass through. However, even though this is very well done, it’s basically just well-accomplished craftsmanship. No, what we also have here is some actual art.

    The stepped nature of these hunting quests mean that whatever level you first encounter the Nesingwary camp in STV, there’s going to be a quest of an appropriate level for you. It’s like a net, spread wide to catch players.


    Well, no. Thanks to how WoW quest chain dependencies work, you actually have to start at the beginning no matter what your level, and work your way through the chain. It would be awfully nice if the quest givers did actually recognize that, yes, thanks to being Level Awesome you can dispense with the Somewhat Mighty Junglecat slaying and move straight on to the Fiercely Mighty Junglecat part of the quest. (Which Warhammer Online also tried to implement, by the way.) At least, it would be if you were playing the game as designed. Players, who are playing the game to win much of the time, would then resent the loss of experience and faction and gold and everything else, and hammer away at the lower level quests despite their being level-inappropriate, because they don’t want to lose any rewards due them at all. (The fact that they will then kvetch about that content being tedious is entirely beside the point.)

Bartle’s primary point, to move away from nitpicking semantics, however, is that the entire Hemet Nesingwary saga is an artful storytelling device which funnels you through the wonder of the jungle, forcing you to ask if you were predator or prey, as you travel down a road which mirrors your character’s growth and confidence. And as designed, the core of STV – which can easily be a metaphor for WoW’s character development model itself – does indeed work that way. Proper game design (at least as one cynical wag put it) doesn’t present you with a complex challenge, but tricks you into believing you’ve conquered a complex challenge. And in WoW, that “complex challenge” is the investment of time. Invest enough time in STV – or WoW itself – and you will eventually win. That’s its inherent promise, and to a large degree the polish in which that promise has been delivered is why WoW is so incredibly popular, even years after its release.

And yet, even with that well-executed promise, there are problems along the way. Server queues. Lack of meaningful social gameplay. Class imbalance. Lack of meaningful PvP. Same old diku, different day. And STV mirrors that as well – even with all of WoW’s promise, and even with STV’s world design and immersive environment, there are times when it falls flat on its face.

And so we have Dustwallow Marsh. Which is everything STV isn’t – a hub-spoke model of world design, less immersive world crafting, more attention to detail and interesting quest mechanics. And with a game and community the size of WoW’s, this is really the solution to STV’s problems – simply create so many options that everyone can be happily grinding their way to vir
tual nirvana.

Freerealms Has A Million Users, Not Including Your Raiding Guild

Congratulations to SOE for possibly the fastest growing online game ever, breaking the 1 million mark in less than a month. (Cheesy TV ads may have helped.) Just as a reference, it took World of Warcraft three months to break the 1 million mark.

It’s important to note of course that, given the name of the game, these are not paid subscriptions, but still, 1 million users in 3 weeks is a milestone by any definition. Of course, if you base MMO popularity solely off the length of Broken Toys comments thread, Darkfall is the most popular MMO of ALL TIME. So, there you go.