Reading Material: ‘Extra Lives’ by Tom Bissell

Extra LivesWhile I was in college I had thought to write my thesis about narrative in video games against a backdrop of narrative convention, but I focused on a creative project instead. Knowing what I do now, I sometimes wish I could go back and work on the narrative project instead, but I realize I probably didn’t have the focus to do that sort of paper justice and, more to the point, games were still too much of a playtime hobby for me.

Over the course of the past year I’ve gotten more and more interested in the serious criticism surrounding games and gaming. There isn’t much, and a lot of what’s out there is dated – some of it is decades old, which for this industry might as well be a millienium – and nearly all the rest is written by people who haven’t seriously played video games.

I did tell Santa about one book, though: ‘Extra Lives’ by Tom Bissell. Bissell is a journalist and author with a pretty impressive resume who also happens to be a serious gamer. As he mentions in the opening chapter of the book, he spent more than 200 hours playing Oblivion, and not for study. Bissell loves games and gaming, but he also has the tools necessary to write about them in meaningful ways.

I’m at the halfway point of ‘Extra Lives’ and though I’m not exactly sure where he’s taking things, I’ve enjoyed it immensely. It’s refreshing to read someone who can intelligently talk about video games without condemning the players and the developers and the entire industry to some special hell reserved for people with too much free time on their hands.

If you’re looking for a new read, consider it. I’d love to hear what you guys think about the book.

The importance of community involvement

Tol Barad.

If I had to pick one thing I love about Riot, it wouldn’t be the frequent champion releases, the skin sales, the contests, the fact that they provide a free game, the commitment to not sell power, or the long overdue Garen nerf (I am really happy about that last one, though). Out of all the things Riot does to give us a great game, the thing I love above all else is community involvement.

Of all the developers I’ve seen, I can comfortably say that Riot does the best job of staying involved with the community and using the forums to quickly and consistently address player concerns as soon as they’re on the radar. Sure, there are a few places the Riot staff has dropped the ball, and the occasional trolling still upsets me, but by and large, Riot’s pretty great about keeping the player base informed about the design that goes into a game.

The reason I decided to write this post today is actually because of Cataclysm. I know not many of you are playing, so I’ll try to cover the issue as briefly as possible. Blizzard made some major adjustments to the PvP system, most notably the way that you progress and earn gear. The honor system still exists but, unlike every other number system in the game, there has been point deflation. Items that used to cost tens of thousands of honor now cost 2200, max. A five-piece set of PvP gear now runs a total of 9900 honor. Obviously, battleground rewards have been scaled back, so players are earning less total honor, but about the same percentage related to gear as was the case in Wrath.

Cataclysm also introduced another world PvP zone named Tol Barad. Like Wintergrasp before it, Tol Barad offers raid access to the faction that controls it, a fight for which is waged every two and a half hours. When it launched, the defending team had a massive advantage and was able to win nearly 100 percent of the battles. To counteract the issue, Blizzard increased the reward for successfully attacking Tol Barad by a factor of 10, literally. The assaulting faction now receives 1800 honor (more than the cost of several of the pieces of gear) for a victory instead of 180. It’s a big problem because it has artificially inflated the gear level for a lot of PvP players and made running battlegrounds seem paltry by comparison.

The design issues this change raises belong to another post. The interesting part for the purposes of this post is that Blizzard hasn’t responded to the change at all, despite the fact that it just went live this past Tuesday. The latest blue posts are a full two and a half days old, one of which says we should look for a blog post after the new year discussing the design direction for Tol Barad. I realize two and half days isn’t that long, but this is prime playing time for a lot of people with the holidays in full swing and this change has already had major impact on the game, an impact that might be compounded if the fix is to re-nerf the rewards. It basically nullifies the gear reset for anyone who makes it to 85 after the change gets reverted.

I have never wished Phreak was a Blizzard employee until now.

Riot hasn’t made a peep about Caitlyn’s release date

Caitlyn 1

We’re now more than two weeks past the Cassiopeia release date, which puts Caitlyn outside the normal release window. Though I’ve been excited to see her launch, I’ve actually enjoyed the extra time. That’s a little silly to say since I haven’t been playing much LoL lately, but it’s nice that I’ve been able to indulge in some other games without worrying that I’ll be falling behind in my understanding of new champions and mechanics.

I’d really like to see Riot stick to a three or even four week release schedule, and instead focus patch weight on champion changes and balance tweaks. There is still a lot to be done for the game, and though I know Riot says balance and new champion design are two different departments, I’m sure the two processes are similar enough to reallocate some manpower.

Evelynn still hasn’t received her oft-rumored remake, and several designers have been quoted recently as saying jungle Eve puts too much stress on the enemy team. That’s something that needs addressed fairly quickly in my mind, even if there aren’t many Eve players out there. Gangplank has also been slated for a review/remake for some time, yet he remains unchanged.

I’m guessing we’ll see a return to the champion-every-two-weeks model of development once the holidays have passed, but sometimes it’s nice to dream a bit.

Caitlyn official skill list and first impressions

Here it is, folks. Caitlyn’s skill list has been announced via the usual ‘Champion Approaches‘ post, giving us a look at her abilities and her artwork. From the sound of things, her skills are indeed a good bit different from Miss Fortune’s, but I’m still not impressed by her art design. She’s a sheriff, right? So why is she wearing a costume dress with a crinoline poking out underneath? Maybe she’s the sheriff of the circus. I’m not trying to play the feminism card here, but why not put her in a duster and a wide-brim hat and make the skin shown a purchasable skin? My two cents, as always. On to the skill list.

Piltover Peacemaker: Caitlyn revs up her rifle for 1 second to unleash a penetrating shot which deals physical damage (deals less damage to subsequent targets).

Yordle Snap Trap: Caitlyn sets a trap to reveal sneaky yordles. When sprung, the trap immobilizes the champion and deals magic damage over 1.5 seconds.

90 Caliber Net: Caitlyn fires a heavy net to slow her target. The recoil knocks Caitlyn back.

Ace in the Hole (Ultimate): Caitlyn takes time to line up the perfect shot, dealing massive damage to a single target at a huge range. Enemy champions can intercept the bullet for their ally.

Headshot (Passive): Every 8 attacks (attacks while in brush count as 2), Caitlyn will fire a headshot, dealing either 150% damage to a champion or 250% damage to a minion.

Wait, she has a skill called Ace in the Hole? Is she TF’s lover? Wasn’t it the burglar she couldn’t catch that was leaving the playing cards
? So many questions for the design department on this one. Okay, back to the skills. I promise.

She definitely sounds like an interesting control champion, and it looks like she’ll be able to play as both AP and AD, which is nice. It sounds like her Q is a bit like Mystic Shot on Ezreal, just that it goes through units. That should give her some good farming capability, but might make harassment a little too easy. We’ll have to see what the range is like.

If you look at one of the screenshots I’ve linked, you can see that she has two traps down at golem at once. Granted, she could have run away after setting one, but that seems like an odd thing for Riot to put into a screenshot. I’m guessing traps have a fairly short CD, maybe low enough to let her jungle?

The net sounds like it could be good for running away, but not so much for chasing. It makes me wonder again about the cooldown. The only reason I could see for the knockback would be so that she can’t chain snares on you, but that seems strange.

I always loved Dwarven Sniper from Dota, so I’m excited about her ult, even if it is poorly named (there was a blog that thought her ult might be named ‘The Long Arm,’ which seems more appropriate). I like that Riot has taken away some of the frustration of playing against Sniper by allowing allies to block the shot. I don’t know how often that will be a good idea, but at least it gives a teammate the option to save you.

That’s it for now. As always, I’ll be playing her on release (actually might have to buy her – I’m running low on IP since the Cataclysm release) and posting my play impressions shortly after launch. It’s not clear when we’ll actually see her, but I would guess Thursday. Maybe we’ll get lucky and she’ll show up a day early.

The next great MMO: SWTOR adds passive gathering and crafting

Crew Skills from SWTOR

I’m starting a new column to talk a little bit about the next great MMO. When I’m playing WoW regularly, I can’t help but think about what’s coming next in the MMO world. It’s a conversation I have often with my gaming friends, and I’ve talked with them about starting this column for a long time.

There are a lot of games in development that might finally try to be something other than a WoW-clone. Most every major MMO I’ve seen since WoW has failed because it tried to emulate the industry’s gorilla. The latest batch looks like it will break that mold, which can only mean good things for us players. If you’ve seen any of the Guild Wars 2 development videos, you know developers are at least thinking about ways to re-imagine virtual worlds that characteristically function and persist without interaction from the player (If you head back to the Alliance starting area, you’ll still find Hogger milling about, despite the millions of times he’s been killed and, if you kill him, he’ll keep coming back).

I woke up the day after Christmas to find the latest installment in BioWare’s teaser series for the upcoming Star Wars: The Old Republic. It included a look at another class, the Trooper, but more interesting (to me, anyway) was the section on Crew Skills. Crew Skills give you access to the profession system in SWTOR without requiring you to spend time building those things up. Some of you probably read that last sentence and cringed. Part of what makes the world engaging is that you spend time doing things and then see the fruits of your efforts. I agree with that to a degree, and I’ll probably do a bit of the profession work myself if/when (more likely when) I play SWTOR, at least for my first character. Past that point, though, professions can be a bit of a chore. It’s annoying to fly around for an hour or two just to farm up some ore. Automating that process means I’ll be able to see the benefits of my professions more quickly, and I get to keep doing the stuff I love while I play. I’m going to spare you my own description of the Crew Skills at work and trust that you’ll just watch the video.

I love the concept, and it’s nice that BioWare has finally given us something other than lightsabers and wristrockets to get excited about in SWTOR. The next great MMO isn’t going to have shinier purples, it’s going to have a more streamlined player experience, aimed at keeping your character solvent even if you can only play a couple hours a week.

Play games against hot girl gamers

Playwithme.com

They say you can find anything you’re looking for on the internet. As the days go by this seems more and more true. I never would have thought I’d be able to log online and play video games against hot girls in an instant, but it turns out I can do just that.

As Jeff mentioned in an earlier post, social sites are popping up to give gamers a chance to play their favorite games against hot young ladies. The latest site to join the industry is PlayWithMe.com. It has a variety of games and ladies set to team up against you. The system is simple. You buy credits and choose your lady and then challenge her to a game. The site has a selection of Flash games, but it’s also possible to play console games against the girl of your choice.

Your best bet is probably choosing a flash game. You are there for a little female company, right? Flash games give you the best chance to chat up the ladies and won’t require as much focus on your play.

Like I said earlier, anything can be found on the internet. If you’ve got money burning a hole in your pocket and an eye for a hot gamer, PlayWithMe is out there. Just remember, the more you play, the more you pay.

Riot launches the League of Legends merch store

LoL Merchandise Store.

Welcome back, everybody. I hope you’ve been enjoying your holidays so far. My heart goes out to those of you at work today, so I’ll be trying to put some posts up to help fill your time at the office. My own holidays have been great (thanks for asking), though I’ve probably gained a solid ten pounds as a result of my own crippling gluttony.

The first bit of news today is that Riot has opened the League of Legends merchandise store. As of right now, you can pick up a graphic T-shirt with a variety of champions for about $20. You can also have the T-shirt customized with your summoner name, which is pretty nerd-chic. There are also posters on sale for $10.

I’m guessing we’ll see the typical gaming swag added to the store over the next couple weeks. Coffee mugs, hats, hoodies, etc, should all be making an appearance, but I’ll be interested to see if they come up with something cool. The shirts are pretty cool and the prices are reasonable. If you’ve got some extra holiday cash to spend, get out there and spend it.

Still not sure how I feel about the dragon changes

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Though I’ve spent most of my gaming time in Cataclysm lately, I have been sneaking a few games of LoL with my brother. There’s been a lot for both of us to catch up on, though the dragon change has probably had the most impact. Teams are definitely playing the game differently now that dragon is worth so much gold.

One of the most interesting setups I’ve seen was a team that ran two junglers. I’d seen it before, but it had never seen all that effective. I guess I should mention they were both jungling in their own jungle. I was jungling ours (and getting ganked all the damn time – there is no getting away from Nunu and Trundle). With two people constantly mia, our lanes were playing very safe. No one was farming well, so no one wanted to buy wards. Obviously this is all a bit anecdotal, since it was just one game, but there does seem to be a lot more focus on dragon in general, and more games seem to slip away from me early if my team doesn’t ward.

I really think the double change – XP nerf, gold buff – was a little too much. Dragon is such a crucial element of the game that I’d always prefer to err on the side of moderation rather than dramatic change. I’m still working to figure out just how much it matters, and there are some farming toons/comps I’d really like to try to exploit the extra cashflow. What have you seen?

Nissan & Sony Give Gamers the Chance to Go Pro in Real Life

By the time I had watched thirty seconds of that video, I knew Nissan and Sony had done something epic. The two companies have paired up to offer the best Gran Turismo 5 drivers from around the nation a chance at becoming a real world, flesh-and-blood race car driver. Just look at those spinouts. I can’t wait.

Here’s a little clip from the press release:

GT Academy will challenge gamers and racing fans alike across the U.S. to compete in a series of online time trials in pre-selected Nissan vehicles in Gran Turismo 5. Throughout the course of the competition, participants will earn free digital content just for playing, as well as have an opportunity to win prizes for winning regional time trials. The top 32 virtual racers in the country will compete in the live national finals event scheduled for March 2011 to become one of 16 GT Academy finalists. The 16 finalists will compete against each other in a series of challenges, including behind the wheel of real Nissan race cars, for a chance to become a professional race car driver as the GT Academy winner for the U.S. The winner will have the opportunity to train with elite race car drivers at international tracks and race as part of a professional team.

It’s definitely an interesting concept. For more info, check out our post on the Bullz-Eye blog.

WoW PvP: crowd control gone wild

WoW Arena.

I’ve been spending a good bit of my game time playing World of Warcraft and I’ve been enjoying the expansion so far. Yes, it is more of the same, but my favorite class (hunter) has been reworked and feels like he did in early BC when I learned to love him. It’s been good to see Blizzard speed up some of the more tedious aspects of the game, and it’s nice having populated worlds again.

My main focus in the game now is PvP. I did the raiding thing for a while, but I just don’t have those big chunks of time to put toward a single dungeon any more. I want to jump in some BGs, go work on my Archaeology, go bleed some gold from the auction house, and work on my professions in a play session. PvP is a lot more conducive to that. PvP in WoW has always disappointed me a bit. There are just too many different skills to worry about from the different classes, and without thorough study, it can be tough to know what happened to you in a fight. I often find myself looking at the combat log (a feature League of Legends desperately needs) and then googling the various effects to see what the hell they are.

The biggest problem, though, is CC. Crowd Control in WoW is one of the worst active game systems on the market today. It is entirely plausible that you will be unable to control your character for stretches as long as 30 seconds, during which you will most definitely die. Blizzard woefully tries to address this with diminishing returns, but those returns are player specific, so you can get chain-disabled by a group of 2-3 players without them incurring much penalty.

There are a lot of good ideas out there for fixing this, but I thought I’d share my own variation, from a post on the Battleground forums:

The CC in WoW always brings me back to a simple game design principle: is the anti-fun generated by the mechanic greater than the fun generated by the mechanic. The answer is overwhelmingly yes.

Someone in the thread mentioned that the goal of WoW PvP is to deny your opponent the ability to fight instead of outfighting them. It’s unfortunately true, and again, really not fun for either side. Do I get a sense of accomplishment when I kill a target that doesn’t move and I just shred away for 15 seconds? No. And the guy getting killed is obviously having very little fun. Loss of character control will always be a crap mechanic for the receiving player. The fact that it can last as long as 20-30 seconds (with disables from a couple toons) is just absurd.

To all the people saying the equivalent to “get cleansed bro,” players don’t always have a cleanse nearby, and suggesting they should get one doesn’t at all address the problem. Nerf the CCs, and nerf cleanse with them so it doesn’t get to the point that you can’t lock that warrior down.

A [global diminishing returns system] would be awesome, but I’d also love to see some system where CC breaks when you take some percentage of your health in damage – let’s say 10 percent for the sake of argument. You get stunned, as soon as your health is reduced by 10 percent of it’s max, the CC breaks and you become immune for X amount of time. I say reduced because heals could prolong it – this would hopefully remind people to kill the damn healer. Fights would have so much more back and forth and be infinitely more interesting. It would also rightly encourage people to use CCs against their off-target for spell interrupts. Put that kind of system with a GDR and PvP is instantly more interesting. You’d probably have to move the damage/healing slider a bit, but any change would require some across the board tweaking.

Even though WoW is the rampaging juggernaut of the video game world, it could learn a lot from burgeoning fields, like the MOBA world. I’ll let you know how it feels when I have a couple hundred games under my belt, but for now I feel like I’m either getting disabled to death or doing the disabling. It’s not very often that I’m hitting someone who’s hitting me back.

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