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Posts Tagged ‘Roleplaying’

Mass Effect Re-Review (Xbox 360)

Some time ago, I tried playing Mass Effect on my (dinosaur of a) PC, and it just was not playable due mainly to performance issues. I also had some problems with the control system, which made the game very difficult to play.  However, I said then that if I got a better-performing computer, I would re-play the game.

Well, that didn’t happen exactly, but I did get a new system — an Xbox 360 rather than a whole new PC (on the logic that it plays games as well as a high-end PC would, but for a good $1200 less).  Since Xbox games usually perform well on that platform by default (there is no sense in a publisher making a game that the Xbox 360 can’t play well because there is no way to realistically upgrade it), I thought it might be worth taking a crack at Mass Effect on that platform. As an added bonus, since it’s an “old” game (as the industry regards these things) it was cheap ($20). So I picked it up and tried it again on the Xbox.

To start with, it took me some time to get used to the Xbox 360 controller scheme. However, the performance was smooth as silk (as expected), and many of the problems I had noted in the PC game were either reduced or totally nonexistent. This explains why my friends, all of whom had played it on the console, were so bewildered when I posted a non-positive review of it.  Since my impression of Mass Effect on the console is entirely different from the impression I had on the PC, I felt it warranted a re-review. I am going to leave the old one up as a “PC review” but add this Xbox version so that people can get the sense of my impression on both platforms. As always, my opinions are mine, and mine alone, and are not intended to be professionally objective.

Graphics 10/10
The graphics of Mass Effect are excellent on the console.  Character design is realistic and top notch, and you won’t find much better visuals in any game on the market.  Special effects look good, and the models are well designed. There’s not much to say here other than that the graphics are excellent.  The overly “dark” feel I got from the PC version of the game was not present here… perhaps it was a monitor or video card issue.

Character Design/Development – 8/10
I like the basic way they have the character design set up.  There are classes, and each class gets access to certain types of weapon, certain armor, and certain “class skills”.  Not all skills can be learned by a given class, which some might see as restrictive. However, this is counter-balanced by the fact that there are more possible skills to learn than skill points to allocate.  Indeed after the early levels you only get 2 skill points per level, even though you will often want to allocate as many as half a dozen at the same time — which means you have to be very careful what to specialize in.  I also like that they allow you (for once) to pick your background from amongst a few choices (though these are still relatively narrow in range) and to pick your gender and so forth.  This is great stuff.  I only wish they had gone all the way and just given you the whole list of skills, and skill points, and let you specialize in whatever you wanted.  Realistically they give you enough choices with the classes and hybrid classes that you can almost do this anyway, so it is a good character creation system.  This seciton would get 10/10 if it were not for the limited looks of the characters.  They give you a lot of sliders to play with, but to be honest the sliders don’t seem to do a whole lot. And for the female models, I utterly despised almost every hairstyle they presented me with.  What is it with Bioware and hair?  I don’t think I have yet played a Bioware game where it was possible for a female character to have hair that came down past the top of the shoulders. When this happened in Neverwinter Nights I let it slide, since it was one of the first “3D” type RPGs I had seen. But this is 2008, people… there are dozens of games on the market with long hair possible, from the Sims to most MMORPGs.  Why can’t they put in some long hair options with this game?  The other problem with the look is typical of most loot-based RPGs, of which this is definitely one — the look of my character is determined by what has good stats, not by what looks good on her. This is always frustrating to me.  So, these guys get a 9/10 for stat customization, and 7/10 for look customization, which I’ll average out to net them an 8.

Game system – 8/10
The game system of a CRPG is the equivalent of a table-top game’s combat and adventuring (as opposed to charcter design) rules.  This is things like how to-hit is resolved, how damage works, and the like. I found to be relatively well done.  One thing becomes very clear after my full play-through on the console: this game was designed for the console, not the PC, and the PC adaptation is not as smooth as it could have been.  The controller buttons are intuitive and easily grasped, and I had no real problem managing the system.  I often quibble when RPGs use what amounts to my reflexes in place of my characters, and Mass Effect does this, no doubt. But it is done in a way that does not overly offend my sense of roleplaying. Overall, using the tight controller setup, I found the game system to be solid. It’s not a home run, but it’s not the foul tip I thought it was on the PC. It’s a solid lead-off double, I’d say.  I’ll point out here that I intuited this in my PC review, where I said “some of this could have been mitigated by the interface, which instead is clunky and, in my opinion, hard to use.”  Clearly I was right — with the better interface of the Xbox control scheme, the issues were mitigated, earning the Xbox version of the game 2 rating points over the PC in this category.

The game system doesn’t include just combat, however, and about half of it is conversation and investigation.  This end of the game is quite well done, as it is in most Bioware offerings.  The combat itself may be hyperactive, but it is punctuated by long periods of thinking and dialogue. You get charm and intimidate skills that will open up conversation options for you, allowing you to get more done without having to fight all the time.  This part saves the game system, in my view, for without it I would have rated it much lower.

Role-Playing – 10/10
For a single-player RPG, you will not find one that has a more sophisticated and interesting role-playing element.  You get to make all the important choices for your character. Their conversation interface is quite nice — a modification of the old system Bioware used to use. The old way, you would be presented with numbered options showing exactly the text your character will speak.  In Mass Effect, instead, you are given a circular “dial” where a very few words summarize what you will say, and then the character asks the question in a more verbose manner.  For example, an option might be “ask about job”, and when you select it, your character would say something like, “So what do you do on this space station, anyway?”  I like this better than the old system, because it allows you to be entertained by both your character’s statements, and the NPCs’ statements, since you don’t know exactly what the words will be.  Also, there is far less “text clutter” on the screen this way, and the game plays much more like a movie than the older Bioware games did.  Clearly, as with any CRPG, you’ll mainly be following a pre-set path, but you do have choices all along the way, and those choices affect how your character is seen by others.  They have two progress bars similar to the “light” and “dark” side bars in KOTOR, called here “Paragon” and “Renegade”, and the game will track your decisions and score you in each area.  Making choices that are illegal or morally questionable will raise your “renegade” score, whereas making choices that are ethical and legal will raise your “paragon” score.  Thus, you get to choose whether your character is a rule-follower, rule-breaker, or somewhere in between, and the game adjusts as you  make these decisions.  Once again Bioware has created a game with excellent roleplay potential for something that is a solo game.  Nobody does it any better than these guys, and that’s still true today.


Performance 10/10

I’m not entirely sure “performance” is an appropriate category on a console, since those games and systems are designed to work “right” much more so than a PC. However, I suppose Bioware could’ve so overdesigned this game that it brought even an Xbox and a high-def TV to their respective knees. However they did not. The performance on the Xbox is outstanding. It’s so much better than the PC version that it’s like they’re not even the same game. The unbearable “loading” issues from the PC did not exist on the console (loading happened very rarely and was quick when it did). The frame rate was constantly high, leading to super-smooth game-play. There were no glitches in the game at all.


Sound 8/10

The music is excellent, and the voices are, as usual in a Bioware game, well acted.  I was thrilled to find that they finally gave the main character (your character) a voice as well this time — in the past,your character was the only silent one, which seemed odd to me.  However, there is some sort of a problem with the way voices are done out of conversations.  The volume seems to be set differently for these (and to be unalterable), and to be at a much softer level.  This would not be too bad, except that sometimes as you finish a conversation, it will exit you out of the conversation “zoom” window, and the last line of the converstaion spoken by the NPC will be drowned out.  If this contains important quest information, you’ve got a problem.  I’m not sure why it did this, but it was a problem on both the Xbox and the PC.  I marked them down for this — it’s sloppy and should not have been necessary.

User Interface – 9/10

The UI for the Xbox is so much better than for the PC that it is like night and day.  The ATV, so impossible to control using mouse/keys on the PC, was easily and intuitively controllable on the Xbox (at least, for me).  The squad controls (for your NPC helpers) are much faster and easier to use on the Xbox, and I found myself actually using them (a lot) there, whereas I was ignoring them on the PC because I found them too hard to use. My only quibble is the radial menu for doing special moves or swapping weapons. I found it very difficult to pick the one I wanted easily. The cursor kept hopping too far one way then too far back the other way when trying to make my selections. The game is paused when doing this so it’s not a huge deal — you hold it in pause until you manage to corral the cursor where you want it. But it shouldn’t be necessary to fight with the left stick on the controller — basically the “trim” for this part of the interface needs to be adjusted. I marked them down a tad for this, since it’s sloppy, but otherwise the interface on the Xbox is intuitive and usable. Much better than the PC version.

Fun – 10/10

In my PC review, I said, “There’s no doubt that Mass Effect has the skeleton of a good game here.”  Oh how right that was.  The “skeleton” was there, as well as the meat, skin, hair, nails, and organs. It’s a solid, fun game, on the Xbox 360. The problem is that only the skeleton is apparent on the PC — which is why I rated the PC so poorly.  On the Xbox, I had a blast with this game, and couldn’t stop playing it some nights, even when it was time for bed. I powered through it in just over 2 weeks of hard play, and I didn’t manage to do every single side-quest. It’s well worth a re-play to try the different classes/options… and was amazingly fun. Far more fun than the PC version, which was an exercise in frustration.

Overall – 9.1/10
When you average all the scores, we end up with an A- for this game — 9.1 out of 10.  This is my highest rating yet on this blog, and I think Bioware deserves it.  The console version of Mass Effect can proudly take its place along side masterpieces like  NWN, KOTOR, and Jade Empire as “must play” games.  If you like Bioware games, or just like RPGs in general, Mass Effect for the Xbox 360 is a great offering, and is worlds better than the PC adaptation. My advice: Just steer clear of the PC version of this game and you’re good to go. Get the Xbox version (especially now that it is cheap!).

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This weekend, I finally decided that I would buy myself an X-box 360. I have not had the console anywhere near enough time to write a review, but it led me to thinking about something else, as a consequence of the game I purchased — Mass Effect.  Now, I already have a review of Mass Effect here, and it wasn’t very positive, so you might wonder why I bought it (a second time) for the X-box. There were a couple of reasons. First, it was on sale ($20). Second, as I said in the review, part of the problem seemed to be my dinosaurian computer system.  I heard from other friends that the game was much smoother on the console.  And so I tried it, and it is definitely much better on the console. When I finish it (assuming that I eventually do), I will be giving it a re-review.

Mass Effect, as you might know, is a Bioware game, which means it’s a computer RPG.  It is like most other RPGs in that you start out as a beginning (“Level 1”) character and the character slowly becomes more skilled and gains better equipment over time.  You can select from about 6 different classes. I chose (again, because I thought it was an interesting class last time) the “Infiltrator”, which is kind of a mix between electronics powers and soldiering skills.  What I like most about them is the sniper rifle.  I was reading up a little about the class on the Bioware forums, just to get some advice on the types of skills that help the most, and someone made a comment that was interesting, and got me thinking about RPGs and the difficulty level. The comment was, “It gets easier as you level up.”

Before I go any further, I want you, gentle reader, to think about that statement, because it is a general truth of how most RPGs — from Dungeons and Dragons to MMORPGs to Mass Effect — are structured.  Let me repeat it: It gets easier as you level up.  It’s true for almost all RPGs (the one exception I can think of is the Pen-and-paper game Champions), and I think it’s a bad thing. I want to discuss why I hold that opinion.

What do I mean by “easy”?

I’d like to discuss why this happens, but first let me define “easier” relative to “harder.” The ultimate failure in an RPG is for the character to die. In pen and paper games this is often permanent. In computer games it usually “resets” you somehow — you load from a save game, or respawn at a spawn point, or lose some experience, or something of that nature.  Therefore, death is the ultimate consequence.  Speaking in general terms, therefore, a hard game would be one in which death was frequent or difficult to avoid, and an easy game would be the opposite.  I recall my first D&D adventure. There were just two of us — my friend Stu, who was the DM, and I, who was the player. We wanted a “full party” but there were only two of us, so we each made up five characters, and then I played all 10 by myself, while he DMed and ran the NPCs.  It was a lot of fun, but even with multiple raise dead scrolls and all sorts of DM intervention and assistance, only 6 of the 10 PCs made it out of that (very long) adventure alive.  That’s a 40% mortality rate of our level 1 characters.   In the next adventure, of which I was the DM and he played all 6 characters, there was only 1 death by the end (one that “stuck” after scrolls and the like, anyway), so that’s only a 17% mortality rate.  Clearly the second adventure was easier than the first.  Our final adventure with this group had no deaths out of five, or a 0% mortality rate. I’d call that one the easiest.

Therefore, having an “easier” time in an RPG means “you have an easier time keeping your character alive.” The battles are less likely to be lethal. The enemies are easier to defeat. The traps are less likely to be sprung, and if sprung less likely to kill you.  And my assertion is that these things become easier as you level up the character.

Why it gets easier as you level up

There are a few reasons why RPGs become easier as your character levels up, quite apart from the obvious cause in any game — the gamers become more experienced.  In a regular, non-RPG, this is the only thing that really makes a game easier — you get better at it.  Turn on Madden NFL or Major League Baseball XXII, and set the game to “normal.” You will find over time that the games later in the season seem easier (notice, I didn’t say “get”, I said “seem”), because for a given (e.g. normal) setting, the game’s difficulty is constant, but after playing 16 or 100 games, or however long the season is, you, as a player, are better. That’s always going to happen, in any game, because humans learn by doing.

However, in RPGs, there is another layer of experience gain layered on top of the experience of the player, and that is the experience of the character.  As a character levels up, many things happen. He usually gains more hit points, and that makes him harder to kill.  He gains attack ability, which gives him (1) more options of ways to defeat enemies, and (2) the ability to damage enemies more or faster. And he will gain non-combat skills, like trap detection or conversation manipulation skills. This will make it easier to find and disarm traps, or to convince NPCs to do the character’s bidding.

These changes, these advances in character power, make the character less likely to die than he was in earlier adventures, and thus, make the game easier as you go.  A higher level Infiltrator in Mass Effect, to use the first example, has an easier time of it because his snipe ability gets better.  A higher level wizard in D&D can cast Power Word Kill, and one-shot kill an enemy, or Meteor Shower, which is like a multi-cast fireball.  At first level he was lucky if he could fire a single magical crossbow bolt out of the palm of his hand once a day.  At higher levels, the thief or rogue can detect traps from across the room while half asleep. At low level he could stare right at the trap and miss it.

Hopefully, as the above paragraphs indicate, this is something that happens in most RPGs. It happened in Dungeons and Dragons. It happens in Mass Effect. It happens in most MMORPGs. The characters’ survival rate goes up as they gain experience, because the experience gains lead to character improvements that make the game easier to play.

Why are games designed like this?

By now, I will assume I have convinced you that RPGs get easier to play as the character levels up. I hope you’re already thinking about where I’m headed with this, which is that games shouldn’t be designed to get easier as you go forward.  But before we get there, you might want to wonder why games are designed in such an obviously reverse orientation (you would expect challenge to go up as players get more experienced, not down). There are some reasons for this, which are the following:

  • Easing players into the game. Although it’s true for pen and paper, this is especially important for computer RPGs, where the game is played in real time and there is little chance to think (as there would be in a Pen-paper game). The player has to learn to react quickly to his surroundings or else his character will die.  If you started characters with 20 or 30 abilities, all showing up as buttons on the hot bar, the new player would be overwhelmed.  In video games, then, it makes a certain amount of sense to start the character out with only one or two simple abilities, and then add one every couple of levels.  The new ability can then be practiced for a while until the player becomes comfortable with it, by which time he’s gained a few levels and it’s time for a new ability.  I have no objection to this line of reasoning and I would not suggest changing this aspect of it — go ahead and start with few abilities and then increase them.
  • Lower level characters don’t need mega-abilities. Many games withhold the “mega” powers, like Power Word Kill or Meteor Swarm, to the higher levels because, for lower level characters, these abilities would be overkill. When a single dagger does enough damage to 1-shot an orc, there’s no need for Power Word Kill, a spell whose main claim to fame is that it can one-shot an enemy.  You need that in the higher levels, where it would take 100 dagger strokes to kill a foe, and one-shotting him is therefore very useful.  I have no problem with this line of reasoning either.
  • Characters become more powerful as they gain experience. Most games are designed to follow a story much like a fantasy novel or a comic book. It is a standard convention of the genre that older, more experienced characters are more powerful.  Although this is a sound principle, this is where the wheels start to come off, because “being powerful” becomes equated with “being harder to kill.” And since the main thing that makes an RPG difficult is dying, becoming more powerful = harder to kill = easier to play.  And here is where we get caught in the inescapable quicksand of pretty much all RPG design with the possible exception of Champions.  When characters become more powerful the challenges need to become equally more powerful. And I will grant that RPGs try to do this… The Malta in COH, a level 45-50 enemy group, are more powerful in absolute terms than the Skull gang. But the problem is that the power increases of PC vs. NPC do not match, so that a level 50 PC is 50x as powerful as a level 1, but the enemies are only maybe 25x as powerful… making the high level enemies an easier challenge for the player, than the low level enemies were.

Why making the game easier as the character levels up is a bad idea

Now I’m going to get to the point of this whole post: Why this is a bad idea.  The reason should be blatantly obvious but I will spell it out.  Although you can sometimes have a level 1 character played by an experienced player, you will pretty much never (under normal conditions) have a level 50 character played by a newbie, and all new players generally have to start out at level 1.  The player is gaining experience as the character does. It makes no sense to present the most difficult challenge to the player and then make the game easier as the player gets better. That’s why so many RPGs and especially MMORPGs get boring in the upper levels.  The game is super hard early on because you are weak, have few abilities, and can die in one shot (Magic-users in 1st edition D&D with 1d4 hit points, anyone?).  Then as you gain levels, it slowly becomes easier as the character’s ability to soak up hits increases.  What’s going on here is that higher level characters give their players much more margin of error. But a wide margin of error is needed by new players, not veterans — so why are we increasing the margin of error as the character (and by extension the player) becomes more experienced?  That’s what I call a bad idea.

Before anyone tries to claim that this lowering of difficulty as you go up in level is an illusion, I want to provide a few examples of how it’s not just all in my head.  The two I will use will be Dungeons and Dragons from pen-and-paper, and City of Heroes from MMORPGs.

In Dungeons and Dragons, weapons do a fixed amount of damage. A dagger always does 1d4. A longsword always does 1d8.  Higher level enemies might have a small additive bonus to their attack (e.g., 1d4 +2), but that’s all. Hit points, however, go up much faster than damage bonuses do. In 1st edition AD&D for example, most NPCs got +1 to hit and damage per level, but even the weakest class (in terms of hit points), the  Magic-User, got +1d4 hit points per level, meaning that he rapidly outstripped the dagger’s damage. Thus a level 1 mage attacked by a dagger-wielding kobold had a 1 in 4 chance of insta-death. By level 10, that mage would have (on average) about 25 hit points, but the level 10 kobold (still wielding a dagger) would be doing 1d4 +10 (at most), averaging less than half the number of hit points per blow as the mage has, and making it impossible to one-shot him.  (We are leaving aside spells the mage could use to buff his hit points, whether the mage has a CON bonus, and other possible weapons, just to make the example easier).  Now, later editions of D&D have done some to correct this, but the problem still remains: at low levels, one or two hits can kill you. At higher levels, it takes a dozen hits to kill you. This dramatically increases the player’s margin of error, making it much harder to die by accident at higher levels. But again, it’s the new players that are more likely to make mistakes, so why aren’t they the ones given the higher margin of error?

Or, consider the game City of Heroes. I played a martial arts/super reflex scrapper to level 50.  Then I played more characters. Then I made up another MA/SR scrapper. At level 1, I had a much harder time surviving than I had with the same (essentially, other than name/costume) character at level 50. Why? Well, first, over level 25, I had health and stamina, which helped my character recover faster. Over level 25, I had “Single Origin” enhancements which could basically double the power and accuracy of my character.   Enemies get a little more versatile as you go up in level in COH, but they don’t become more powerful relative to your character. It takes about 3 kicks with martial arts to bring down a white conning enemy at level 1, and about 3 to bring him down at level 50.  Because living long enough to deliver 3 kicks is harder at level 1 than at 50, that means the game at level 50 is easier. In fact, at higher levels I used to talk on the phone or watch a video while playing the game, and not die once in a long mission. If I tried that at level 5 there would be a lot of face-plants. And remember, I’m not talking about back when I was a new player… I mean after I already had gotten the same character type to level 50.

I could give a lot more examples, but for the sake of space I will end with those.  The point here is that RPGs, by their very nature, almost always get easier for the player as the character levels up. This is a bad idea, because it’s the new player, not the veteran, who needs the easier experience, and yet it is the level 1 experience that is, in most games, the most difficult to survive.

Solutions

So what possible solutions are there?  When giving the reasons why the difficulty goes down as level goes up, I didn’t really disagree that the reasoning in most cases was sound. We do want to ease players into the game by giving them less options and thus hopefully less confusion. We do want to have characters grow in power as they gain levels. But there needs to be some sort of increase in the power level of the enemies as well, perhaps also an increase in AI… something to make the difficulty higher as you level, and lower at the start.  So here are my basic suggestions:

  • Give the best AI to the highest level enemies. A few games give a token nod to this idea, but I’ve not seen anyone do it well yet.  The higher level AIs should be smarter, not just more powerful.
  • Give new characters (and new players) some “panic buttons”. Things like (full h.p.) healing potions or scrolls of invincibility seem to only crop up at higher levels, when the characters are able to cast those same spells or do those same things. Here’s a news flash for game designers: a high level character is probably never going to need a scroll of invincibility. He is already nigh-invincible. The guy who needs it is the level 2 with the newbie player, who doesn’t realize that poison arrows are done as a “save or die” roll.
  • Give low level characters a bigger margin of error. This really has to do with the problem of hit points and “how many hits” you can take.  One way or another designers need to make sure that level 1 characters can take as many hits as level 10 or 20 characters.  If you are expecting a new player to be able to make all the right decisions or else die in one shot, you are asking for trouble in terms of player frustration.  I veteran player may know how to deal with potential one-shots. A new player will not.
  • Start the game out slowly and then speed it up. One big problem with computer games is speed.  Right now the idea is to give players few abilities to start with and then add more abilities as they level up. This effectively “speeds up” the game slightly as the player has to train himself to consider more and more options over time.  But it’s not the only way to speed things up. You could have things actually go more slowly at lower than at higher levels.  Have enemies attack, for instance,  once every 4 seconds at level 1, every 3 seconds at level 10, every 2 seconds at level 20, and so on.  (I am not suggesting these actual timings but just the idea of having it speed up over levels.)  Let the player ease into the speed rather than easing into the options.  Too often the game play speed doesn’t change, so if the player is having a hard time at level 1, there is no remedy but to somehow level until it “gets easier” (that is, the character lives long enough that the speed is no longer an issue).

I’m sure there are other ways to deal with this, but those are four obvious ones that came to my mind as I was thinking about this. New players are going to be poor players by definition — why give them the hardest time? The vets are the ones who can handle the tougher game-play.

You may be thinking “well that sounds good but it can’t be done.” I’m not so sure. Most non-RPG based games are already doing this. Most racing games start you out on easier tracks against slower cars and dumber (in terms of AI) opponents and then ramp it up as you complete races and prove that you can handle it.  Most fighting games in the vein of Street Fighter or Mortal Kombat are the same way. Arcade games have been doing this for years. Each wave of Space Invaders or level of Pac-Man was basically identical except each went slightly faster.

Right now, most RPGs and especially CRPGs and MMORPGs are designed in reverse difficulty order… they make the lower levels harder than the higher levels, which makes it so that veteran players are facing substantially easier challenges than newbies are.  I can’t see how this could be thought of as anything but backwards, and although I know it has been a part of RPG design for as long as there have been RPGs, I think it’s a bad idea… and that designers need to re-think the whole thing.

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Wow that was fast…

As readers of my blog will know, I tried the Open Beta Test of Champions Online back in August. My view of it was not very favorable, and my gut instinct after that weekend was to beg off.  However, a good friend of mine was really into it, and for some reason I found, after Open Beta (OB) ended and the pre-launch period began, that I was missing it.  I’m not even sure what aspect of it I missed, to be honest. But I turned it over in my mind for the time between OB and Launch (on Sept 1) and decided that I’d go ahead and get it (as I explain in the comments of that first post).

I played the game for about two months, and I have to say for the first 10 levels or so, the first maybe 10 days, it was fun.  Then as I got into the higher levels, all the flaws I had noticed in OB started to reassert themselves — or rather, they’d been there all along but the shiny newness of the game and in particular the fun of gaming with a friend of 30 years again, obscured those faults.  I won’t get into the flaws here, as I’ve already discussed those in my earlier post.

Again, if you’ve read my blog, you know that I am a roleplayer, and that I usually try to find a roleplay-oriented guild (or in CO/COH parlance, “Supergroup”) to join, as I find that enhances the experience. And so right away, I went looking for RP organizations in CO. I found a site called “Champions Online Roleplayers”, or CORP, and they had a listing of supergroups.  I looked around for one that matched both my style and my character’s, and I found one. It seemed fairly active, and had a simple enough application process, so I applied to them.  I had an interview/RP session in a day or so, and was duly accepted into the team.  They were good people, and I had fun with them for a few weeks, until the game wore on me to the point that I started logging in only for the RP sessions. And while those are good, I’ve been down this road before, and I know enough that once I stop playing the game for its own system, it’s time to go.  I canceled my account yesterday, and thus ends my adventure into the Champions Online arena. I doubt if I’ll be back, but you never know.

Now, that’s not what the title (“That was fast”) is about.  The interesting thing about this guild, and the thing that was “fast”, is the vast difference in speed between joining and leaving it.  Although the application/approval process only took a couple of days, it took them something like a week and a half to get my board permissions set up. I had to ask repeatedly, and finally after the third or fourth time it was rectified. In the mean time, for the first 10 or so days I was on the guild, I could not read any of the private areas of the guild forum, despite the fact that I was entitled (conceptually, if not in “forum code bits”).  So, it took them a really long time (relatively speaking) to get the board permissions changed for “off” to “on.”

What I find interesting, and more than a little ironic, is how much faster they were at revoking my permissions when I informed them of my departure. I want to be clear that I left under no acrimony whatsover. I never said or posted anything negative there about the game (and I don’t think they know that this blog is in any way connected with my login on their forum, as the names are not related, and I’ve never mientioned it).  I have never said anything negative about the game on their in-game chat channels. So even though I was thinking highly critical thoughts about Cryptic Studios and Champions Online, they could not have known about those, and I had not done anything to upset anyone in the slightest (so far as I know).  I participated in their RP and my relationship with them was 100% friendly. I point this out because they had no reason to suspect, as one might suspect with an acrimonious split, that I might post anything vile or do anything damaging to their forums.  And yet, literally within a few hours of posting my very simple resignation — a resignation in which, even on the point of departure, I did not criticize the game, citing only a “lack of time” as the reason for leaving — my posting status had been changed to “retired.”  I realized this mainly because the number of visible forums upon logging in changed from morning to afternoon. At that point, I thought, “Wow, that was fast!”

I want to make it clear, that I have no problem with them revoking my membership status. They should have done so, and I don’t mind that it was done at once.  It shows they are on the ball. But I thought it was slightly humorous that they were so efficient at revoking membership, while they were so slow at awarding it.  It seems to me they’d be better off doing the reverse.  When a new player comes in, you want that player active and involved ASAP. At once. You don’t want the player to have to wait days, or more than a week, to be able to read guild posts or make posts himself.  Although I liked the group there was a general lack of efficiency in the admin corps, and I wonder if this doesn’t show why — they’ve got their priorities a bit skewed, perhaps.

At any rate, both my membership status change, and more generally my membership in both guild and game, were pretty fast. And now I’m looking for something else to fill the time with (game-wise). For now I am trying to work on a Sims 3 Legacy. I’ve never taken one past the 3rd generation. We’ll see how it goes.

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Well after my “open letter to Cryptic”, I will admit that I did end up buying and am still playing Champions Online.  I did this for a few reasons. First, when I stopped playing it (after my post was written), I found that the game-play had grown on me, and I found myself missing it.  Second, a few of my friends play it, and the only other MMO that many of my friends play is WOW, and I just hate WOW. Finally, Sims 3 had gotten a bit tiresome after a solid month of play, and I needed a break from that. CO provided that break.

Of course, I am a roleplayer so I went around looking for roleplaying, and found it at a place called Champions Online Roleplayers, or CORP for short.  Through them I found a Supergroup (guild) of RPers, and I have been enjoying playing with them, as well as with my pre-existing friends.  Along the way a few interesting debates have cropped up in CORP’s forum. Most recently someone posted about roleplay vs. game mechanics.  The original poster argued that things like levels have no “RP” validity, and we should ignore them. He also argued that the duel system in game had no “RP validity” because powers in the game were not perfect representations of the conception in the player’s mind, and therefore the duel should be done by “consent.” Finally he said that mission content was all “out of character” because, if I beat Psimon, how can it be that you beat him, and 100 other people beat him? So basically all the missions we do have “never happened” to our characters.

I whole-heartedly disagreed with this, and said so, and along the way a large debate sprang up.  Finally one person voiced his concern this way:

My main problem with this is what do you do with characters who have long histories? Why should a character with 50 years of well documented backstory be “right out of Xavier’s Academy”?

Here was my response:

It’s up to you, as a roleplayer, to figure out how to get that working right. Nevermind CO or an MMO… play Champions, the PnP RPG. I bet you most GMs would not allow you to build your character on 500 pts when everyone else has to start with 250, just because you happened to write a longer backstory. In our game group I and every other person who GMed would have said, “That backstory is great and all but you still need to adhere to the 250 point total, 50 active point single-power restrictions.” If you’re Thor the Thunder God, then you need to figure out how to deal with it. YOU need to figure that out, not the GM, and not the other players.

Look… you have a fully open pair of eyes here. You know going in that the game is going to MAKE you start at level 1 with a newbie character, even though you may not be a newbie player. You know you will be as weak as possible to begin with and you’ll only start with 2 powers, neither of them a defensive power. Knowing this, you have the choice of what origin to make up, and so if you decide to make up Thor the Thunder God who is supposed to have 97 powers and be powerful enough to knock down skyscrapers, then knowing he won’t be doing that for 30-odd levels, you should be clever enough to come up with a reason why he either (a) doesn’t have those powers just now, even though he had them before and will have them again, (b) has been “depowered” for some reason, or (c) is choosing not to use powers he has, for some reason (a “prime directive” from the gods maybe).

My point here is, you know what the rules are going in. Knowing those rules, if you choose to make up a character who can’t possibly exist within the parameters of the game, it’s rather disingenuous to turn around and (basically) blame the game for not fitting into your character conception. It’s not like the character conception was forced on you or was produced by some objective process beyond your control. You made up the character with the huge backstory and the supposed immortal-level powers…. even though you knew the game wouldn’t let you actually play out those things. It’s your choice, so figure out how to make it work.

Years ago I actually played the “real” (from the comics, and I mean from the actual DC universe) Supergirl. In our game multiverse, each comic company’s universes “existed” and could be crossed into. There was a crossover with DC and Marvel, and the LSH was part of the guest cast, and Supergirl ended up crossing over and then staying in our game universe permanently. She started out as an NPC, but then became a PC. This being the “real” Supergirl, there was the small issue that in the comics, at the time, she could toss asteroids around and fly to the center of the universe in a single day, but of course in Champions with about 300 pts total (as the campaign was then), there was no way to do that. So, I had to choose what to do. It was simple enough… the transfer to our universe “depowered” her — the “lines of reality” in our universe don’t work the same way, so now she can only toss around trucks instead of asteroids. She fit into the universe, but was still Supergirl.

See my point here? I fit my concept into the parameters of the game. If you want to play a roleplaying *game* you really sort of need to do this, or else there’s no point to playing the game. After all there are MUXes and MUSHes and stuff out there where RPing happens in text only, by consent only, and you can play however you want, so if that is your goal, why wouldn’t you do that, rather than play in a game that has rules and a “game system?”

It seems to me the real challenge of playing an RPG rather than just roleplaying in a freeform unbounded system, is to find a way to play your character correctly (as you see it) within the parameters set out by the game. I mean any fool can use 10,000 points and zero rule restrictions to make up Superman. But to make up a viable, credible, Superman character with 250 pts in the Champions rules? That is damn tough to do… and I for one always got satisfaction from doing it.

In CO, I am playing a PC who is supposed to be completely impervious to harm in the Superman/girl fashion, and also impossible to imprison or hold bound in any way. Can I actually do that in the game? No… no game would let you. So I compromised by just making her very, very tough, and saying that the “holds” are really just slows — they don’t hold her like they do everyone else they just “slow her down.” Obviously this is fiction on my part, but it lets me fit her concept into the game world.

It doesn’t bother me to make this compromise. Again I have always felt that making such compromises is part of the art of the roleplaying GAME… It may not be the art of roleplaying, since one can RP without a game. But once you stick the “G” on there, as in RPG, you are playing a game… games have rules… and the goal is to work within the rules, to use the rules, to get the best RP experience you can. And frankly I prefer RP gaming, to just RP without rules. It gets too freeform for me. I like rules and organization.

But that’s me.

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I have written extensively on this site about what constitutes a challenge in video games, and about my dislike for repitition in video games. Nowhwere is the “repetitive  challenge” mentality more visible than in the Massively Multiplayer Online RPG variant of games (MMORPGs), and in particular Cryptic/NCSoft’s City of Heroes has earned my ire in this regard on more than one occasion.  Before I rant about this particular game, let me describe what I mean by the “repetitive challenge.”

Most gaming companies try to find what is fun for players, and give them fun things to do — at least, that’s what they say they do, and I have no real doubt that it’s what they are at least attempting.  However, they don’t seem to understand what makes a thing fun, and what doesn’t.  Frequently what makes something fun is the novelty of it.  The thing about novelty, however, is that it wears off.  It might be that, in City of Heroes, I had a really fun time fighting my first “False Nemesis” (Nemesis is a guy who made thousands of robot copies of himself, all very powerful, to throw the heroes off the trail.)  The first time he went “intangible” at 25% hit points, making him impossible to hit, or threw a force field around his allies, causing me to have to change my battle tactics, was definitely neat.  Unfortunatley, Cryptic Studios seems to have drawn a false conclusion from the fact that this one encounter was fun to do once. Namely, they seem to think that if a thing is fun to do once, then doing it ten times in a row must be ten times the fun… and a hundred times the fun to do it one hundred times in a row.

Of course, that’s not how fun works.  I don’t know anyone who loves a movie, and will tell you that the movie is just as enjoyable the tenth time you see it as the first.  It simply can’t be as enjoyable (though it might still be worth watching), because some of the enjoyment you get out of watching a film comes from not knowing what will happen next. That sense of suspense cannot exist in a repeated viewing, and when you’ve seen the movie enough to have memorized all the lines so that you know exactly what happens at every second, there’s no suspense left at all.

The same thing happens in a MMORPG battle against some NPC villain.  The first few times you fight this villain, it will throw things at you that you have not, perhaps, seen before.  This is enjoyable as it increases the suspense and the challenge.  But, after you’ve fought, and beaten, this same enemy several times in a row, the subsequent battles become rote, and not at all challenging. In fact, fighting the same battle over and over eventually will become boring to the player, and eventually will make the player start looking for another game.

Game companies would do well to realize this, but a lot of them don’t seem to.  Computers make blocking and pasting so easy now, that it’s too easy for the designer to make one monster or enemy and then just fill a square mile of dungeon with one copy after another of this monster, than to try to make original monsters around every turn. This type of lazy design should not be tolerated by the players, but it not only is, but is often applauded.  The players, inexplicably lulled into a state where they think of “work” as the point of a game, and think that “how hard you work” in the game should dictate your reward level, seem to actually prefer it if they have to do the same thing hundreds of times in order to get some “reward.”

Are these people having fun though? I’m not sure if they are.  I think a lot of them have turned their game into what amounts to a second job, a job full of mostly filler material at that, and are using that to fullfil some of their needs for reward and recognition… but not apparently their need for fun.

I’m not like the gamers who want their games to be work.  I work hard enough at work. I want my game to be fun… lots of fun.  I don’t like being bored, I don’t like having to play through hours of filler, and I don’t like repetition.  Which brings us back to City of Heroes.  In that game, I have exactly one level 50 character… I have three characters in the 40-50 range… and the rest are all level 33 or lower.  I have tons of alts, but why do I keep getting to around level 40 and then starting a new alt rather than just finishing?

The simple answer to this question is: repetition.  As you get into the higher level story arcs, they are stuffed full of more and more filler.  You will be asked to “go stop Nemesis from blowing up alternate dimensions” or something, and then you will wind up doing one mission after another on the same map, with the same exact goal (“disarm the bombs; save the hostages”).  The missions are just copy-paste jobs, one after another, all block copied from the first in the series.

Why would I want to waste my time on this stuff? It’s all filler.  It’s junk… none of it distinguishable from the rest in any way, all designed to just make me spend time in the game.  So I once again have a level 47 tanker, who I am not sure will ever get to 50, because to get there, I have to wade hip-deep through repetitive filler… Once again the company thinks that making me do work, is the point of the game.

And once again, for the 3rd time in about 5 years, I’m contemplating canceling my COH account.

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