Saturday, August 31, 2013

LotRO: Helm's Deep - coming soon to a credit card near you

In 2010 Warner Bros. acquired Turbine. Overall, this was a very bad sign. The end result is the same, centralization, corporate conglomeration, another small step in the homogenization of the entertainment industry and our culture as a whole. Shockingly enough, though, the takeover was actually good for LotRO, and LotRO was my only investment in Turbine, despite the fact that it made LotRO into a poster-child for the FTP (legitimized cheating) business model which has greatly contributed to the disappearance of the MMO concept. 

Allow me to reiterate. LotRO benefited from the WB takeover. Not in any negligible nor a revolutionary way, but noticeably. Where to start? With the beginning, of course.

Shadows of Angmar & Evendim
The original LotRO release. A straight-up WoW copycat in terms of gameplay, including in all the nonsensical WoW carry-overs (like town guards) which not even WoW made use of anymore, LotRO nonetheless excelled in terms of atmosphere. The dreamy melancholy of Ered Luin, the lighthearted ease and small comforts of the Shire, the subtle wails on the wind in Angmar itself, all painted the sort of picture of Middle-Earth which brought a smile instead of curses to many lifelong LotR fans' lips.
Additions like the second half of the Angmar main storyline slid gradually down in quality toward the abyss of Moria.

Moria  & Lothlorien
LotRO's lowest point. Faced with widespread player abandonment, largely stemming from the repetitive grindfest WoW-ish gameplay, Turbine put out and expansion which moved the game even further toward WoW, especially in terms of forcing players to grind more and more mobs, desperatelly trying to keep them busy. This went for the aesthetics as well, filling the depths of Moria with nonsensical devils and overblown cartoonish versions of the game's existing monsters.

Mirkwood & Enedwaith
The spot where Turbine seemed to realize the error of their ways, to some small extent. It was not a step forward, but it stalled their backward slide. It was Moria with a bit more attention to detail. It began to capitalize again on LotRO's strong points in atmosphere, on the middle-earth feel and careful landscaping. Still, this is where many of LotRO's problems like the standardized faction-by-zone currency grind and the heavy use of cutscenes and "story" quests as timesinks became set in stone.The damage had largely been done.

Isengard & The Great River
The first expansion after the WB takeover. It was a strange mix, a sort of lull while the new management became acclimated to the mess they'd bought into. The greatest feature of Isengard was an attempt to placate players. It featured no decisive creative move in any direction. It was the most simplistic, the most soloable, the easiest content yet. Some long-overdue crafting and class skill mechanics were implented, but aside from that, Isengard was a snooze.
This was also where the company's pattern of future releases became blatantly obvious. Every "major" expansion has since Lothlorien and Enedwaith been followed by a minor zone which features an ungodly faction-reputation grindfest meant to keep powergamers busy. The rewards from that grindfest are of course immediately invalidated when the next expansion rolls around and raises the level-cap.
I'm only re-iterating this to illustrate the reasons why I call level-based multiplayer gameplay a "treadmill."

East Rohan & Wildermore
This is where things got interesting. The gameplay has not gotten better. The addition of mounted combat was a side-grade in quality at best. Mounted combat cannot work for the same reason PvP was always a joke in LotRO: the basic game engine, server response and combat mechanics, while excellent for standard stand-and-shoot PvE, are too static to offer the sort of fluidity and interaction on which PvP thrives. PvP and mounted combat are both clunky, laggy and offer nothing over a game like WAR or Rift or for that matter WoW itself.

Aside from that, the game has remained a single-player grindfest. It has also retained the schizophrenic split in attempts to appeal to various types of players, first seen with WoW. It's created largely for casual players but sticks in a couple of "raid" instances and some faction-rep gear-farming for the powergamers at its tail end. It's a PvE game by design but sticks in an inconsequential PvP option. It banks heavily on portraying middle-earth but litters it with nonsensical christmas and halloween events.
Amusingly, this facet of the business model directly flies in the face of the FTP side of things. As with all things MMOish, it was mindlessly copycatted from WoW in an attempt to copy its success. Yet WoW's success almost entirely stemmed from being the first, the first to break into the mass-market that is. It could be an all-purpose game where features were tossed in randomly because it was a social event, not a product. Hordes of retarded little brats joined in because all their little buddies were playing, without knowing anything about gameplay or that there were better options available. WoW rode the avalanche of its own popularity. It was the only game in town.
LotRO is not the only game in town, and the FTP option only serves to drive home that point. It has stayed afloat for so long because of LotR and it will bank now on the Hobbit movies for some popularity, but at some point the developers must realize the slew of half-baked additions to gameplay are only hurting them. Any player who comes in seeking PvP or co-op PvE or social options or crafting or basically anything other than the basic selling point of middle-earth will be sorely disappointed. They are not likely to make the switch from FTP to subscriber.

Unlike WoW, WoW-clones have to decide what they are. Are you co-op PvE or faction PvP or freestyle, guild-based PvP. Do you sell balance or variety? Do you sell complexity and heavy involvement or ease of access? These are contradictory features.

Yet amusingly, Rohan was good in many ways, in terms of aesthetics. There are still overblown, cartoonish monsters around, but fewer than in Moria or Isengard. Greater care was taken to create game zones which have an internal logic and consistency, unlike previous expansions. Small farms and homesteads dot the landscape, terrain varies pleasantly, with major features serving as visual landmarks. There is a much better sense of proportion, and the landscaping has returned to the careful, detailed quality of the starter zones in Shadows of Angmar.

Compare and contrast.
This is an image from Mirkwood. It looks random-generated. Evenly-spaced trees, obvious paths, obvious terrain gradations, no surprises. Dull.


Now here's an image from Wildermore's forest, the Balewood.

I am not showing an image of the Balewood from the outside because it would only look like an undifferentiated mass of snowy foliage. I have often said that a bad game world makes you feel like a big man, while a good game world is like a dip into the Total Perspective Vortex. A good game world makes you feel small by comparison.

You can get lost in the Balewood. You can get ambushed because the foliage hides the all-too-convenient floating names of monsters. You can head for a landmark only to realize a few minutes later that you've been walking at right angles to your target. You can think you're on the right path only to come up against a stone cliff. All this is important. It is a crucial feature and a very convenient metaphor of the sort of escapist fantasy which a persistent world should embody. It should be a world in which we can lose ourselves, at least for a little bit.

So I'm sort of torn. The next LotRO expansion is coming out. WB apparently plans to crank out expansions as quickly as it can. My guess would be that they're actively milking the game until the craze over the Hobbit movies dies down, so for at least a few more years. I doubt there's anything they can do to improve gameplay at this point. LotRO is doomed to be a pointless single-player grindfest. And yet, it's Middle-Earth, and unlike Turbine's leadership in the Moria / Mirkwood days of the project, the new management seems to have identified their own principal selling point.
I'm torn on whether to buy the next expansion or not. On one hand, the game is finally improving, even if only in superficial ways, and I've suffered through some of its worst bits already. I may as well keep paying. I didn't buy Moria or Mirkwood until years after they came out, but I've already been WB's bitch for the past couple of years. On the other hand, the industry is finally improving. Thanks to Kickstarter, we now have some potentially good games coming out, not just games that bloodthirsty investors who have never touched a magic sword think will sell to the kiddies. Camelot is still so far off though...

Ho hum. Let's not be hasty. I can always get my middle-earth fix by walking around through the Shire for a bit. I wonder how long it'll take for the expansion to go on sale. I could stand not to see Helm's Deep until next year.

Thursday, August 29, 2013

The Shifting Demographic: Imbalance - It's Not A Bug, It's A Feature

So I've been trying out DotA 2 (which is just a nostalgic trip down bad memory lane, it's DotA 1 right down to point-by-point copying the exact same heroes and abilities) and aside from its many, many other problems, I've had a thorough reminder of just how ridiculously unbalanced it was.

DotA, as I've said before, is the dumbed-down side of a wide variety of AoS maps which War3's modding community put out. It was the most simplified, which means it had the widest leet-kiddie appeal, which means it also accumulated various other features intended to draw in even more leet-kiddies. And what do all humans like to do? Beat up nerds, of course!
DotA was split by necessity between heroes based on intelligence, agility and strength stats, because this was the delineation set out in Warcraft 3. Without getting into details, suffice it to say that DotA's community of snot-nosed neanderthals seized on the inherent imbalance to set up a system of glorified inequality. The "killer" or macho archetypes of heroes were given endless arrays of abilities and items which made killing intel-based nerds fun and easy, constantly reinforced by both practical resource rewards and the limbic* payoff of having the game tell you in booming, Quaking voice that you're "godlike". Or "teh awesomesauce" or whatever other moronic catchphrase they stuck in.
This is now getting mindlessly copycatted by all AoS games as the concept of a "carry" - the type of super-buffed assassin hero class which does not help others, relies on others to support it and just kills stuff. Kills stuff hard. Really really hard. 'Cuz it's awesomesauce. I refer you to this post if you'd like to figure out what kind of players this appeals to.

The "shifting demographic" series of posts is a continuation of my MMManifesto, which is supposed to be about products which aspire to the "MMO" label in some way. So why am I talking about Warcraft 3 and DotA? Because it's no accident that it was Blizzard Entertainment's fan club which cemented this mindset in the marketplace. Blizzard itself has long had a policy of "no balance is good balance" refusing to address blatant issues as long as they make someone feel like a big man. World of Warcraft was a perfect example. From the start, it was clear to anyone with half a brain that the "shaman" class was a cut above others. It was versatile, it could burst, it could heal, it had armor, it had escape abilities and everything else it could want. Blizzard only ever responded with their all-purpose customer-service stonewalling tagline that the class was "working as intended." And then the public data-gathering started. And Shamans were winning 85% of their PvP fights.
"Working as intended" indeed. It's not a bug, it's a feature. Shamans were very likely intended to draw players to the horde side, to make up for the "pretty people" and cutesiness appeal of the alliance races. But there's a greater theme here. Players used to throw "unbalanced" at a multiplayer game as one of the greatest curses imaginable. However, with WoW breaking into the mass-market, that liability became an asset.

The most redundant PvE class in every WoW guild was the Rogue. Guilds had to make special allowances just to fit rogues into their raiding line-ups, to make them feel included, to carry them through instances so they could get geared. Yet the rogue class consistently acquired more and more players. Why? Because rogues hurt people. This has been a constant in online games for as long as there have been online games. Whatever feature, be it weapon, race, class, whatever, which lets players hurt others with impunity will always be over-represented. However, companies used to have to cater to nerds as at least part of their playerbase. Some sort of balance had to be struck. Not so once you've breached the mass-market, once you have scores of sports-fans and reality TV watchers who will gladly play for the illusion of power. This is why WoW's rogues, in addition to their killing abilities, also kept the "vanish" skill, a perfect getaway device which not only turned them invisible but wiped all spell effects and positioned the rogue's dick in perfect alignment with your ass.
Because humans are not intelligent enough to care about balance. They just want to feel like they can "pwn noobz".

The entire industry has adopted this variant of mass-appeal. Being macho, being sadistic, being a parasite using your teammates so you can score killing blows without risking your own hide makes you better by default. No matter the game, developers feel the need to implement options which are obviously, blatantly better than others, so that the moronic masses can feel superior for taking what's been handed to them.

I could see the shift in EVE-Online. At its start, it attempted to strike a balance between ship types, avoiding entirely pigeonholing them into "killer" and "victim" roles. As it went on however, noncombat or support ships lost their defensive capabilities and more and more "ganker" options started showing up.

It shows up in Planetside 2 with the Liberator, the bomber-class aircraft. Instead of flying over targets to bomb them and being susceptible to interceptor aircraft, you'll more often see Liberators flying sideways so they can aim their bomb-launchers at interceptors to one-shot them. It's not a bug, it's a feature. It's a risk-free proposition, sadism without repercussions. It sells subscriptions.

It shows up everywhere because this is the nature of humanity. Back in the late 90s and turn of the millenium it used to be that nerds and geeks in online games were ridiculed for their vicious aggression, for their desire to be nothing more than griefers, taking every chance, be it imbalance, cheating, hacking, zerging, anything to ruin your day. This was presented as a character fault of nerds and geeks, of pimple-faced internet escapists, because only such monsters could act so monstrously... right?

Heheh, no. When injustice gets codified into law, it's because the people adopt it, not because the escapist intelligentsia invent it. Miniver Cheevy wanted to be a "warrior bold" not a drooling psychopath. The sadism, the cowardice, the facetiousness, that's the all-too-normal side of the customer base, and it has grown immeasurably larger over the past decade, enough that fairminded nerds wanting to play paladins or Robin Hood can now be ignored by developers.

Welcome to the real world.

Where'd the Internet go?








* Here I discovered that blogger's spellchecker does not recognize the word "limbic" - honestly people, basic neurology's not exactly the latest obscure slang by 2013.

Monday, August 26, 2013

The Human Condition

"All beings so far have created something beyond themselves; and do you want to be the ebb of this great flood and even go back to the beasts rather than overcome man? What is the ape to man? A laughingstock or a painful embarrassment. And man shall be just that for the overman: a laughingstock or a painful embarrassment."
- Nietzsche, Zarathustra

It's always an infuriatingly disjunctive experience to hear people very reasonably stating unreasonable things. And no, I'm not talking about old Fritz.
As is evident from their tone and content, my "humanity" posts are almost always immediately caused by some snippet of world events or commentary on same which has infuriated me. More often than not, they come about as I sit at my computer losing yet another match of various strategy games while listening to the audio of some video online.

The previous post and this one both come on the heels of speeches by the religious side of this debate. That I am getting it half a dozen years out of date, you must forgive. We escapists are an insulated lot by design.

Much of the argument for the use of social ills boils down to an attempt at inducing surrender in progressives.
"You cannot live without religion. You cannot live without corporations. You cannot live without armies. You cannot live without boy-bands. No matter how much we screw you over, you have no choice but to bend over and take it."
This is the "human condition" argument, the argument that we as individuals are housed in human bodies and that our nature is therefore inescapably human with all its animal tendencies and that nature is unchangeable, that it makes universal, eternal, inescapable demands.

This is in itself a religious attitude: "as it was, so shall it ever be." It is testament (as is the term testament itself, by-the-by) to the deep scars left by the dark ages in our communal accumulation of knowledge. Such absolutism evidences the senility of the wisdom of the ages.
I will not enumerate the many aspects of our society which would seem unconditionally inhuman to a 1st-century b.c.e. rabbi. Even without addressing the validity of intrinsic humanity as a concept, it should be obvious that the qualities presented as intrinsic at various points in history are mere fads in the greater scheme of intellectual advancement. We can and must expand this to include such classic universals as faith or love or the quality termed "humanity" itself.

We exist not on one continuum but many.
There is the proliferation of life which should be seen not as a conglomeration and interaction of discrete species but as a continual diversification of a single flow of genetic variation. We are all that single primordial replicant eating itself, breeding with itself, growing itself.
There is the capacity for information processing, from crystal resonance to the feedback loops within a single living cell to the attraction/avoidance patterns of simple minds like fish, lizards, dogs and capitalists to the truer awareness of a Siddhartha Gautama and beyond to those born and unborn for whom the grand questions of philosophy are mere quasi-superstitious waffling.
There is the spread and diversification of culture, of communication living through us, from the changing character of a dog pack to chimps' various fads in tool-making to libations wasted on stone altars and slogans shouted in grimy industrial-age city streets to the incarnate zeitgeist of something like the Internet.
The least evident perhaps, and the most thrilling, is the continuum of identity itself. If is fallacious to say that we possess consciousness. We are consciousness housed in a physical body. We are the tail, and on a good day we can wag the dog. The more we shift along this continuum, the less relevant our outward human form becomes.

The only constant is change. If we define monsters as inhuman, then we are all monsters by the standards of our forebears. Ask your Habilis Hominid ancestors if you don't believe me. To advance, we must not fear our monstrous natures. If it is inhuman to deny faith, then be inhuman. Be the monster tearing others' safety blankets to tatters. You are not losing any more than you are gaining. You are only shifting yourself imperceptibly forward along one of your many axes. However there is something even less human than being a monster, and that is denying the truth of change; it's the illusion of stagnation. We cannot exist in a thermodynamic equilibrium, either as individuals or societies. We slide backwards or forwards in some way with everything we do. Your choice is not between being human or monstrous. It is between being a monster, or dead. Humanity is an illusion.

We are told that humans cannot be fair or kind or creative without religion or greed or outward control, among many other supposed absolutes.
Because these absolutes are human.
Yet many of us are already doing just fine without subscribing to those absolutes.
What are we then?

I for one am Werwolfe. Now you know one of the reasons for this, my assumed, chosen, true identity. I am the shifting, inhuman monster, bestial and transcendent, sub and super-human at the same time. And I only wish I could bite a few people now and then.

We Own You

One of the common fall-back points of apologists of various of our great social ills like religion or corporations is the argument of exclusivity.

"But look at all the cool stuff it's made! You want to get rid of religion or hierarchical capital accumulation? What're you nuts? Look at all those pretty cathedrals and those shiny laser beams in the latest summer blockbuster. You couldn't have any of those if you didn't surrender society to irrational belief or blind instinctive power-mongers!"

Well, yes, let's look at those things. Let's look at sculptors, musicians and painters re-painting the same Levantine mother of a newborn future Rabbi for centuries on end, being denied all other sources of inspiration. Let's look at modern-day brilliant individuals slaving away for half their lives in dead-end jobs, ass-kissing their way up some corporate ladder for the slim hope of getting the most tenuous chance at the funding to actually make something of their own.

But ignore the fact that such control is most commonly actively detrimental to creativity for a moment. Why would it be necessary? The fact that human creativity can shine even from under such restraints does not make creativity the exclusive domain of those restraints. What does art lose by removing the pyramid schemes breaking its back in past and present societies? The resources used by creators in their craft would still be available on our planet, all the more so for not being whittled down by layer upon layer of parasitic bureaucrats before they can reach the individuals who can use them. The brains are still there. Our ability to plan and distribute those resources to those creators is still available. Coordination does not imply co-optation.

All we must surrender is our idiotic social-ape dependence on social hierarchy, our slavishness, our fear of individuality. Religion is not inspiration; nor do corporations enable creation.
Imagination is inspiration, the same imagination which created the myriad pantheons of the world.
Science and technology enable creation, not the parasitic power-structures which lock the majority of the world's resources in destructive competition for its own sake, which mire technology in planned obsolescence and hobble science with the demands of, not scientists, but the mindless glut of mass-market demand, of not what can be taught in a half-year university course but what can be advertised to Joe-Schmoe in thirty seconds of television.

Sunday, August 25, 2013

Your daily button-mash, now with purpose!

Anybody remember the show "Lost"? Yes, that one, the adventure story with so much potential which got increasingly focus-grouped down to mass-market appeal until it devolved into some pointless, subservient religious claptrap. Well, back in I believe the second season there was one character which had to enter a code into a computer terminal every day or The World Will Explode! (tm).

That's the sort of vibe I get from the current "must-have" online game gimmick of daily quests. The industry is in a sort of tail-spin with regards to MMOs. They've thrown out all quality, engaging gameplay in fear of alienating customers who now have no reason to play these games, then in an effort to increase subscriber bases they've... stopped asking for subscriptions (OK, sure, why not, I'm certain that made sense in some board room at some point) and then came up with various gimmicks to try to keep players addicted even though they, the developers themselves, had removed anything which might keep anyone invested and involved in their products.
The whole MMO business model is an increasingly ridiculous litany of half-measures meant to mitigate the predictable but somehow unpredicted aftereffects of other brainless half-measures, an unraveling patchwork of terrible ideas.

Like daily quests. I'm sure to executives these sounded like an amazing notion. One: our customers are too stupid and apathetic to set goals for themselves so we have to keep throwing carrots at them to chase, hence, constantly re-appearing "quests". Two, and more importantly: we no longer have any product to sell. How do we keep people logging in when they've lost all interest? Dailies! Log in or you don't get goodies. And if you're not getting goodies that means you SUCK!

So now we, the players, are in the position of Desmond the monk engaging in simplistic, ritualized behavior every day. Or Your Character Will Explode! (tm)
Push the button, get a food pellet.
Behaviorism at its finest.

Yet oddly enough there are ways in which daily quests could actually be integrated into a real MMO (and I maintain, no such beast currently graces cyberspace) to make them a component of players' virtual lives and the greater interactions of the game world, and these have to do with two of my old posts about seasonal content and the implementation of religion or divine spellcasting. A true virtual world should have its own calendar, its own schedule of events, confluence of astral alignments, whatever keeps the universe spinning. If every in-game day corresponds to 0.8 hours of real time, then events which transpire on the day of the full moon in the game world would be daily content in real-world terms. Elegantly. Seamlessly..

Daily incentives to log in are ritualized behavior performed religiously anyway. Why not make it part of an in-game religion? Instead of making players log in for no particular reason, have them log in to travel to that day's holy location to burn incense to Amun-Ra and strengthen his dominion over the world, increasing the effectiveness of his followers' spells. In other words, make the "dailies" a coherent part of the game world, both in stylistic and practical terms.


P.S. I just realized I did not use Ra as an example by accident. A Tale in the Desert attempted to implement some complex mechanics for the growth and distribution of crops and some randomly found plants and animals. Unfortunately I did not play it long enough to have much to do with fishing or papyrus growing, but I did chase mushrooms across the desert. During in-game nights, mushrooms would spawn. They grew in wide bands across the desert, and the location shifted gradually each night as the in-game year wore on. How did I discover this? I did not read it in some online guide. I logged in one day and found my isolated house in the middle of nowhere surrounded by mushrooms. And then the next time I found them slightly north of there. And then as I tried finding the greatest concentrations to gather, I noticed they were distributed in a wide latitudinal bands. And so on. All the information was right there around me, inside the game world, to be discovered. Beautifully implemented.

Friday, August 23, 2013

Undercynicism

Like most of the world I've had my interest drawn (well, relative to my usual apathy) by the flare-up in the usual middle-eastern insistence on expanding the market for bullets, bombs and backwards mentality. It illustrates, among other aspects, the crucial difference between myself and the vast majority of those who get lumped in as "liberals" by the American mass-media machine.

I feel no compassion for the underdog faction in Egypt, the ones supposedly getting brutally slaughtered by the military autocracy. It's a conflict with no heroes. I'm not a fan of the military even as a general concept, but in this case, despite whatever atrocities they care to commit, they are not the worst of the lot. If they are fighting an incipient fundamentalist regime, then they are the lesser of two evils. 

The problem with current left-wing politics in the west is weakness, and it pains me to say this because it's what conservatives constantly and nonsensically keep throwing in the face of progressives. You get called weak and have various insults (or insults in spirit) to your sexuality thrown at you for suggesting anything that would reduce the ability of the rich to get richer, of the fiscal aristocracy to tighten its grip on society. However, the weakness in liberals' attitudes is not in the actions they would take, but in the actions from which they shy away in fear of getting their hands dirty. Ask yourselves what it would be like living under a "Muslim Brotherhood" regime you weak-kneed, bleeding-heart panderers and appeasers.

"The people" are not the good guys. Universal suffrage gets you vast swaths of mindless meat which can get brainwashed into voting for the power of the aristocracy. And when "the people" actively choose anti-intellectualism, when they choose superstition and instinctive tribalism over progress, then "the people" should get slammed down with all the force necessary to ensure they stay down and let higher life-forms like individuals make the decisions.

I am an anarchist and yet you worthless idiots give me no choice but to constantly endorse despotism. Rot in whatever various hells you all believe in, you brainless apes.

Monday, August 19, 2013

The Use of Wage-Slavery


In 1971, some... guy... (OK, I know nothing about him, I've only read the one article) named Herbert J. Gans enumerated the various covert or latent functions of poverty in capitalist (specifically American) society. Functions? Yes. Poverty is useful to the upper class. Some of these are less obvious than others (I myself have been repeatedly citing a couple of them since my early teens) and the whole thing makes for good reading.

However, the upper classes have moved with the times. They have grown more aware of their need to choke the poor's ability for backlash. It's not enough to drive vast segments of the population into poverty so they'll be available as cheap labor or cannon-fodder. Idle hands do the devil's work. The poor have to be kept busy.

What the rich need is a lower minimum wage. What the rich need is to put America to work. The rich need service-industry dead-end jobs, and unproductive civil service sinecures for uneducated slum escapees. The rich need to fill your day, so that you're too exhausted to protest. Rather than unemployed poor shouting protests in front of courthouses, it's much more profitable to create backbroken laboring poor with no time to spare for such frivolity as free speech. Always remember, every ounce of work you do feeds right back into the system that's keeping you down.

Do what you need to do to stay fed and sheltered, but never, NEVER let yourself get stupid enough to be grateful for having a job. You are slaves.
And stop breeding. You're only creating more cannon-fodder. Your children's lot will be worse than yours.

Friday, August 16, 2013

Age of Wonders

After HoMM 5 showed such a flat refusal to improve on the gameplay of the series, I started to keep an eye out for suitable replacements, copycats, fantasy TBS fixes, what-have-you. One result was Elemental (now known as Fallen Enchantress) with which I'm fairly content despite some disappointments. But I have also gotten burned.

I picked up two of the Age of Wonders games from GoG during a sale, the very first iteration plus Shadow Magic. Really, it doesn't matter which one you discuss. Shadow Magic does offer some apparent improvements but the series as a whole seems... amateurish. I am by no means an AoW expert, having played only a few games (and usually not even to the end) but that in itself is partly because the game makes it very difficult to get into. I don't mean that the complexity or sheer amount of information it contains is in any way more daunting than that of better games, but that it is badly presented and disorganized. It comes across as half-baked.

As far as good points go, it's nice to see a fantasy game designed around fantasy races. Goblin-dwarf relations and keeping your hobbits happy are nominally core challenges, but there is so little nuance in every game feature that it turns into an all-or-nothing proposition: one or two moves seem to make you a race's hero or villain. There is also a nice system of cover and blocking for ranged attacks, but it is, again, rudimentary, stuck at "great potential" since it does not combine well with the tactical combat movement system which ends a unit's turn after it attacks - meaning that ranged units cannot actually use cover, being either protected and useless or effective and exposed. This pattern follows for pretty much every feature of the game. There are a lot of elements, but they are shallow and poorly integrated with each other. The game lacks coherence.

The biggest put-off, though (and I don't say this often) is the graphic design. Interactable game elements tend to get lost in scenery clutter, which is needlessly overdone. For being able to afford so little in the way of graphics, the AoW games consistently overbuild their visual elements until they are indistinguishable. Even trying to click on a unit that's on top of a city is a pain. And speaking of clicking, there are some fairly universal game conventions which there is simply no reason to change. Left-click to select, right-click to move. Tooltip descriptions popping up at the pointer tool's tip. Selecting a unit and moving it out of a group to separate it from the group. An "options" menu available from the opening screen. Yet even in terms of such basics, AoW is completely counterintuitive and pointlessly "creative" while achieving nothing by its creativity.

I won't even go into my usual complaints about the lack of a freeform game mode. Suffice it to say that AoW is entirely a scenario-based adventure in interface frustration. There is some value in the series, but it's buried under mounds of amateurish, haphazard, tacked-on misfunctionality. Supposedly the next one is coming out next year. Will the developers have gained enough experience to address such problems?

Thursday, August 15, 2013

Wolf's Rain

"An axe-age, a sword-age, a wolf-age"

It is impossible for me to be objective about Wolf's Rain. I mean, not that I usually try to sound impartial anyhows, but something like Wolf's Rain just contains too many of my favorite elements, panders too insidiously to my personal tastes for me to even be able to spot any flaws or weaknesses, aside from their inexplicable decision to stick four clip shows smack dab in the middle of the series, but that's a production issue. It should not be taken as a fault in storytelling. I know it must have plenty of flaws. It is a product intended for mass consumption. I just enjoyed it too much to notice them.
It's got wolves, it's got apocalypse, it's got dystopia, it's got wolves, it's got class struggles, it's got wolves, it's got over-the-top villains and dramatic speeches, it's got... well, wolves. I don't even know where to start... maybe with the wolves?

Though seemingly created (as many Japanese animation series) with one eye toward export, the show still starts from an apparent Shintoist take on its mythology. These wolf-men are not the kin of the accursed Cain or King Lycaon punished and banished for his cruelty and pride, but Kami. Their shapeshifting ability is... not. It is more akin to glamour magic than to anything else in European mythology. In fact, humans themselves - ah, but I don't want to spoilerize nothin' just yet.
Suffice it to say that the wolves are wolves, intrinsically, their human sides little more than a mask. Their values are those of roaming apex predators. They value freedom above safety. Personal pride and dignity permeate their interactions. They are individualists with a sense for meaningful cooperation, not herd animals nor wage-slaves. They are the wolf in man at its best. They aid each other for personal reasons and by the same token they frequently quit each others' company and simply walk off into the world.

And what a world it is. Cyberpunk/steampunk motifs seem to have made some impression on Japanese entertainment, perhaps because Japan was subject, like the old Communist block, to rapid technological growth displacing the centuries-old cultural balance (not once, but twice) and then displacing itself in rapidly sequential iterations of inefficient, ineffective mirages of progress. Dodes'ka-den, dodes'ka-den, dodes'ka-den. Or maybe it's just Murakami's fault. Either way, the action of Wolf's Rain takes place in the usual clandestine underworld overshadowed by the machinations of an inescapable, brutal but clumsy technocratic aristocracy. Bucking the system is nearly impossible. The wolves can only haunt the outskirts of its influence.

Wolf's Rain is not the most original anime out there. If you've seen a few episodes of one or two others, you will know when the boss fights are coming, know who the tragic villain and the villain-villain are, etc. It sticks to a lot of popular tropes. Many events transpire simply because that's the way things go in this sort of entertainment, and anyone unfamiliar with the amount of suspension of disbelief necessary to enjoy anime will likely not enjoy the series. Yet it manages enough twists on the old archetypes to seem fresh, and best of all, it doesn't pull its punches. Hopes get dashed. Characters die off. Existence is suffering. And paradise? Who knows. Maybe the best we can do is keep moving.

Keiko Nobumoto. I need to remember that name. Cowboy Bebop was the series which made me stop dismissing anime as nothing more than mass-market tripe and I would recommend Tokyo Godfathers to anyone. Amusingly enough (given the Cowboy Bebop reference) the music in Wolf's Rain was relatively good, fitting the scenes it accompanies, but the opening and ending themes were somewhat annoying. The opening theme even copies a little riff from the opening of Serial Experiments Lain... was that supposed to be subliminal association? Sorry, it was too clumsy. This, from the creator of Cowboy Bebop's jazzy soundtrack?

There, I can finally criticize Wolf's Rain on one point. Give Yoko Kanno a slap on the wrist. She was slacking. Though at least it's better than endless choral repetitions of Eeeeeeska-furoone!


P.S. My favorite character was Blue. Don't ask me why. Haven't figured it out yet.

Monday, August 5, 2013

Game mechanics I should never see in an AoS

1. Last-hitting.
This is utterly moronic. All money earned by the team should be split among teammates. You should be fighting for the greater goal, not fighting each other for scraps. There is absolutely no need to reward twitch-reflexes by giving money only for last hits.

2. Fully passive "abilities".
If every character/hero/champion/lord/muppet has four abilities, then all four should do something. Every ability should have an active component, regardless of any passive benefits or interactions. Kudos to League of Legends for at least getting this right. And bless you, Demigod, for separating passive bonuses from activated abilities in your skill tree.

3. Activated items.
The whole point of the AoS concept is to restrict micromanagement. NEVER give players a choice to use items which give them activated abilities instead of passive bonuses, or if you do, limit such to exactly one or exactly two for every character. Do not reward the leet-kiddies for punching more buttons. Timing, positioning and synergy should be the focus of combat, not twitch.

4. Controllable summoned minions.
See #3, except this even more blatantly flies in the face of the game concept, and it's one thing Demigod got wrong, dead wrong.

5. Bounties for killing other players.
You should not be personally rewarded for the idiotic pissing contest of "pwnz0ring" another player. Killing an enemy player is only a step toward the greater goal of victory for the team and should always be treated as such. Reward the killer's team as a whole, if anything.

6. Experience split.
This is one of LoL's particular failures and was a problem in DotA as well. Though technically players can go anywhere on the map, having to split experience gain with nearby players forced the most spread-out pattern in every match, a 1-1-1-2 split which resulted much more 1v1 dick-measuring than there should be in a team game. Don't punish players for working together. Hitting your enemies' weak points, keeping them off-guard, is in itself a reward for splitting up. There is no need for an artificial penalty for being near each other.

7. Resource loss on death.
This goes for any team game except MMOs. Never, ever, punish the players for dying. Dying in the service of the cause is part of the game. Sacrificing oneself to save teammates or team objectives should be lauded, not derided as "noob" - the resurrection timer is penalty enough.

Eve of the Apocalypse

I was recently asked why I have given no attention to DotA 2, given my interest in AoS games and the fact that I played the original DotA for quite some time. For years, really. Anyone remember when the Enchantress used to have spider pets?
Them weren't the days. Because DotA was never a good AoS. It, along with its copycats Heroes of Newerth or League of Legends and presumably DotA 2, represent only the dumbed-down, mass-market bastardization of what could have been a true strategy game. They whittle down the teamwork and strategy elements to nothing and turn the concept into a team deathmatch twitch-game. Even within this simplified version there were more creative Warcraft 3 maps like Age of Myths which featured more interesting skill/ability systems. DotA won out the AoS map wars mainly through programmer professionalism and support. It was always the least buggy, the most tested, the most frequently and promptly updated. It was playable. However, none of this makes it fundamentally a good game.
Well-polished coal is not diamond.

The best incarnations of the AoS concept are the ones which bear in mind their nature as strategy games. Not 1v1 clickfests. You are a hero, yes, but a hero as part of an army, and the development of that army should be the focus of the game, not your own personal hunt after magic swords and a positive kill/death ratio. I know of only one commercial release which bore this in mind, and that is the beautiful and lamentably defunct Demigod. However, one of the many AoS maps which died out as DotA rose to supremacy was EotA.

Eve of the Apocalypse. Its focus was on point control mechanics, capturing and building up resource nodes. The players could invest the resources they acquired into not only their own personal gear but also base structures and unit upgrades. They could change the flow of AI-controlled units around the map, upgrade basic units with various abilities or summon various advanced units. This is the heart and soul of AoS. The purpose of giving the player only one controllable unit is to eliminate micromanagement, not to remove all strategic and tactical elements. It should never be, as DotA, LoL, etc. always are, just an idiotic macho dick-measuring contest over who killed whom.
Give your AI's footmen a stronger shield. Invest in air units or if your enemy has air units, give your archers nets to bring them down. Build up your AI forces on one side of the map while personally stalling your enemy at the other end until you can sweep through to victory.

Unit counters, investment in upgrades, strategic goals, cost-to-benefit ratios, every RTS element except the constant keyboard-smashing and twitch-clicking of unit micromanagement, should be included in an AoS game. We don't need a DotA 2. We need an EotA 2.

Or even better, a Demigod 2.

The Telling

I've just re-read Ursula K. Le Guin's The Telling. Why? I'm not sure, really. It's not something I expected to want to revisit.
My way of recommending the story is for once the same as many readers': "decent, but not Le Guin's best work". She's written more admirable books (The Dispossessed) or more enthralling adventure stories (Rocannon's World) or ones which have hit me harder personally (Solitude.) Yet there's still something about it.

It's easy to get caught up on the politically charged elements of the novel. There's no telling (pun intended) how much East-Asian culture has been lost in the past century, much less in similar modernization processes in other parts of the world. Religious suppression of progressive thought and progressive suppression of religious pursuit will always be hot topics for any of us on either side of the fence. (To needlessly re-iterate my stance on the issue: progress.) Yet The Telling is not an ideological pamphlet like Four Ways to Forgiveness or even The Dispossessed. It is not concerned primarily with which side causes greater loss. It seems more a tale about loss in itself. It concerns the things we discard as our interests shift, as individuals or societies. It's more about the experience of tearing away parts of ourselves, and the meaning and understanding discarded in the process. It's about loss, both as the necessary or inevitable cauterizing and shedding of pain and burdens and the overkill of revolutionary or reactionary thought or of our generalized tendency toward Stockholm Syndrome.

I pride myself in my progressive outlook, whatever that ends up meaning, but I cannot say I've always kept a clear conscience. Is it possible to rid ourselves of obsession, fanaticism and cloying custom without also abandoning their accumulated experience? Are we cutting the cultural branch out from under our feet?

I also don't think it's fair to fault the book on being unfocused, or the main character for being mainly a passive observer and not a prime mover. After all, the emphasis should be on the Telling itself, on being lost in the immensity of human experience, desperately trying to patch it together as it constantly falls apart.

Saturday, August 3, 2013

Melancholia

I like Melancholia.
I've had others tell me that I focus on the negative, seeing half-empty glasses all around me. I've been accused of fashionable sneering. I've been told that I never smile. I rain on parades. I'm a wet blanket. I am unproductive. I delight in pointing out the stupidity of your tastes.

"I drag you down, I use you up - Mr. Self-Destruct"


Yet I've found a scarce few things which have made your fabricated, instinct-driven shithole of a world slightly more bearable for me to haunt until you decide to finish me off. Is it my fault they tend to revolve around death and decay, around the ends of worlds?
No. It is your fault. Yours, Homo "Sapiens" - yours and your animalistic, ritualistic, co-dependent, mindless grasping for control over each other. I await the end of your imaginary world of power-mongering and meaningless formalities. And some days it's not worth getting out of bed. And some days I've spent imagining you breaking down my door and tearing me to pieces. And I can feel your every expectation, your folkways and mores dragging me into the morass of your thoughtlessness. Creepers and vines. I cannot shed you. I am not strong enough.

Justine was, even if it broke her.
I almost stopped watching Melancholia several times during the second third or first half. It was painful. The segment titled after her contained almost nothing of Justine whatsoever. It was all you. It was all your world, the human world, and somewhere under it, gasping for breath, fettered by your stagnant, clinging customs, was Justine, aunt Steelbreaker just barely breaking through the surface.
Why do you hate us? Cowards die many times before their deaths. If you are indeed so valiant compared to us Justines, then you need only fear the taste of death but once. Or do you fear, do you know, that in that moment you will find yourselves for the first time as maladjusted as we are in your world? Will you need a Steelbreaker to hold your hand? To shelter you from the inadequacies of your own delusions of social stability and continuity?

Melancholia is not one of my favorite movies. The second third of it was too abrasively... normal. However, it has quickly become one of my favorite memories. I just don't think I could sit through that wedding montage again anytime soon. But if I can suffer through that, you can stand to watch your own world end. Watch it.
Maybe just that. Maybe I'll replay just those scenes a few more times, so I can give a little sigh at Melancholia looming above the lot of you as it is always above me.

This is the second movie I've seen by Lars von Trier. Dogville is another fond memory I have little intention of watching again. He seems overly-fond of gratuitous nudity and places too much emphasis on sexuality. I'll likely give The Nymphomaniac a pass on that account. Ditto on Antichrist. I'm also not sure I could sit through Dancer in the Dark considering the supposed setup of social irreality tearing individuals down. Maybe I'll force myself through it.
Steelbreaker.