I Wish I Weren’t Writing This Article- a SimCity Review from a Marketing Viewpoint

I didn’t sit down at my PC today planning to write this article, I actually had some pure leisure time in mind. However, I haven’t been able to do what I planned to do quite a bit this week as much as I’d hoped- play the latest version of SimCity, released Tuesday, March 5th. I’ve been able to play the game some, but as I’m going to get into, there’ve been some technical hiccups to say the least. In between bouts of trying to play and weeping softly at all the wasted time I’ve had a chance to monitor a lot of different channels of sentiment and also watch EA’s response with an involved but sort of dispassionate perspective. See, I buy games like these expecting to get screwed. It’s a lot like going to the casino- if you plan to lose you’ll probably have a pretty good time.

Roulette is FUN, who cares?

Before I get into what I’ve seen other people saying, and then into what EA’s response has been (pretty good, actually, considering) I want to explain what my personal experience has been. In a nutshell, the SimCity servers are lying whores:

 

lies

 

…but I still love them so, so much.

I preordered after applying to and playing in the second of two one-hour betas; I literally went to the page and ordered the deluxe digital download directly after playing it. D. Then, I played in the 4-hour “stress test” beta and realized the potential the whole game had- and that’s when I started getting really excited. I got the game early, Monday night because I live on the West Coast. I started stabbing the button at 9 PM and started downloading the unlocked game at 10:01. It took about 40 minutes to download and unpack, and I managed to get a good 2 hours in with the game before forcing myself to go to bed as I had work in the morning. It was only enough time to set up a region, claim a city, and noodle a little.

I went to work on Tuesday, then watched RAW from Monday night, then sat down at about 9 PM to play SimCity. A ha ha ha. I sat there for the next three hours Alt-tabbing between servers that were melting and several forums that were exploding. I didn’t get to play. I did manage to play Wednesday for about 3 hours, and Thursday for the same. I was completely locked out last night and as I write this on Saturday afternoon, I am also currently locked out.

Here’s what I know about SimCity in easy to digest bullet points:

1. This is not the SimCity you are used to. It’s much more dynamic, there are things to do beyond just “grow your city and make Simoleans until everything is   arcologies”, as fun as that was:

The disasters can’t be turned off (unless you want to disqualify yourself from leaderboards)- but there is a sandbox mode that I haven’t tried as it just seems very unsatisfying to consider.

 2. YES THE GOD DAMN CITIES ARE GOD DAMN SMALLER,WE KNOW, STOP POSTING IT. It’s a very deliberate decision EA made so that your dad’s laptop can also run SimCity, and not just your mechagodzilla of a gaming rig.

The thing is, it doesn’t matter. Cities are all part of a larger region now- and if you want to, you can set up a 16-city region and run ‘em all yourself, go nuts. I think          however, that would be missing the point because…

3. SimCity ’13 or whatever we end up calling it is essentially a multiplayer game at heart. Amidst the cries of “I can’t wait until they hack in offline single player” (impossible, the games are saved server-side) or “I’ll play it when someone cracks the DRM” (not going to happen, Diablo III for example is  almost a year old and hasn’t been cracked and won’t be cracked until the server code is leaked, same as SimCity) what’s being lost is that people are pissed that it’s not the                 same game. Wanting the game to be single player only, wanting to be able to save games, wreck your city, and go back again and start from before the disaster are things this game simply is not about.   It’s a reboot, and it’s going to leave a bad taste in some people’s mouths. The good news is, there are  still plenty of alternatives, including the last SimCity game which no one played until modders got their hands on it and made it not suck so bad. I, for one, can’t wait to unleash hordes of pollution and villainy on my neighbors in the region, then bulldoze, start again,  launch a rocket,build an arcology- and so on, and so forth.

4. They almost assuredly have teams that started working on DLC and/or expansion packs- I really hope it’s the latter- in parallel to the team working on the main game release. It’s going to be expensive to buy everything that comes with this game, as proven by the first DLC, which already represents an extra $30 to spend to “have everything”, if you didn’t get it for the discounted $20 by spending $80 on the deluxe version. This is not the whole game.

          5. This is a beautiful game. There’s no way around that one, I love to watch this game. These pictures don’t even do it justice, it is so pretty in motion.

 

 

6. The long term “endgame” of SimCity is the leaderboards.  The “Simulation” aspect of things isn’t something I am interested in particularly, min-maxing traffic through gaming the system by building huge cities with only one road, for example, doesn’t interest me. I’m more interested in building up huge regions with other friends and working together to take on the leaderboards.

7. This is a very fun game that’s not ready for prime time yet. Hold off a week on buying it. I’m really enjoying it;  I’m just tired of having to wait and roll the dice for 45 minutes to see if I get to play it or not. This is in spite of them supposedly doubling server capacity already- I haven’t noticed an appreciable difference in my ability to connect and now that it’s the weekend things are getting even worse.

So what are people so Angry about?

1. Always on DRM- you have to connect to EA’s servers to play the game. You can’t boot it up on a laptop on a Navy submarine, and you can’t use it to relax on a plane without paying for wifi. Does this suck? I’m not really bothered by it, I have a fast and consistent connection to play on, but that’s ignoring a lot of other people that don’t have one. It seems greedy and stupid but a retailer wouldn’t let thieves walk out the door without paying for merchandise, EA is not going to willingly let people pirate their games if they can help it by any means. I know it’s a  controversial opinion but DRM is something gamers brought upon themselves.

2. The servers are melting- the game is pretty much unplayable for a large portion of the people  that bought it. This is clearly the biggest issue, people paid anywhere from $45 to $80 for the game and can’t play it. The most common conclusion being drawn is that if the game simply had a one player offline mode- which is what a lot of people identify SimCity with, none of this nonsense would have happened. I’ve been around for some pretty big launches and it is getting irritating that companies are all “We didn’t know so many people wanted our product” when they know damn well how many people are going to play based on preorders. It’s hard not to think they aren’t just being greedy or stupid by not scaling up at first to meet demand.

Whaddya mean, people want to buy this thing we marketed and hyped the shit out of?

3. EA has flatly stated, “no refunds for Origin downloads”. This really pisses people off too because no one, anywhere, anytime said WE NEED ANOTHER DIGITAL DISTRIBUTION SERVICE  and the service has frankly sucked like a Hoover since it was launched. It’s seen as another money grab by EA, an inefficient, buggy system when they easily could have adopted Steam, a system that has had time to mature and already does work.

4. There’s no single player, offline mode- this is less a reasonable consumer complaint, and more a “waah, my game changed” complaint. I’m not saying it’s not legit. I’m saying I have no sympathy for you if you bought a game unresearched and didn’t know what it was going to be in advance. There are 105 million results in Google’s index for “simcity review”- there’s something in there about the game, probably, somewere. Just a hunch.

The SimCity launch has been the perfect poop blizzard of poorly estimating consumer demand, a beloved franchise that changed a lot, and a seemingly soulless corporation greedily and clumsily implementing DRM ostensibly to help gamers, but ultimately perceived as “to fatten those margins”.

The other side of this coin is that as a marketer, it’s interesting for me to study a trainwreck like this from a PR/marketing/crisis management perspective. EA has done a lot of things right but I don’t know if A) there’s going to be any lasting damage or B) what the scale of said damage might be. At the time of this writing EA’s stock has not moved since the game’s release on Tuesday. I think what we’re seeing is digital Funzo trampling

If you get this reference you are as big a dork as I am.

I don’t think it bothers EA at all that there is so much demand for their game that it’s breaking their infrastructure- to your average stockholder, who doesn’t play games or give a crap about a server queue, that looks like you have a product that the consumer really really really wants to buy. And they’re right to think so, in spite of this fiasco the game remains the top selling PC game on Amazon. However, they have to respond. Here’s a brief summary of their response so far.

The company and its reps have been active on Twitter, as has Ocean Quigley, the Creative and Art Director for the title. Senior Producer Kip Katsarelis also posted on the official blog:

” You, the fans, are important to us. It’s why we got into games and it’s because of you that we  here at Maxis were able to complete our dream of making another SimCity. This has been an exciting week for us, but as you know there have been some bumps along the way. We want to shed light on one of the most significant issues that we are facing right now, as well as the steps we’re taking to resolve them so that we can provide you with an enjoyable experience.

 Server capacity is our biggest obstacle. We launched in North America on Tuesday and our servers filled up within a matter of hours. What we saw was that players were having such a good time they didn’t want to leave the game, which kept our servers packed and made it difficult for new players to join. We added more servers to accommodate the launch in Australia and Japan, and then more yesterday to accommodate the launch in Europe. As of right now, we are adding even more servers which will be going live over the next three days. And, our plan is to continue to bring more servers online until we have enough to meet the demand, increase player capacity and let more people through the gates and into the game.

Earlier today, we released a patch that temporarily cut off some features including leaderboards, achievements and Cheetah Speed to reduce data stress on the servers and effectively free up space so that we can let more people into the game. These are great features that we’re proud of and we’ll turn them back on soon, but our number one priority is to bring stability to our servers. This update also resolved some of the bugs and issues that have been frustrating players. You can read all about it at http://forum.ea.com/eaforum/posts/list/9341807.page

We will be posting regularly to keep you up to speed on developments, so please check back for updates. We are committed to doing everything we can to deliver a stable and enjoyable experience and we thank you for your continued patience and support.”

EA has also added 8 additional servers and patched the game- but they aslo removed the fastest gameplay speed, cheetah, which messes with the way a lot of people play, and they removed features such as sorting on the Join Game screen as well.

In addition to getting on a sort of filtered Reddit-style AMA on Twitter today, Maxis SVP Lucy Bradshaw has also posted the following on the SimCity blog:

“Here’s a quick update on the problems we were experiencing with SimCity – and a little something extra for people who bought the game. The server issues which began at launch have improved significantly as we added more capacity. But some people are still experiencing response and stability problems that we’re working fast to address.

So what went wrong? The short answer is: a lot more people logged on than we expected. More people played and played in ways we never saw in the beta. OK, we agree, that was dumb, but we are committed to fixing it. In the last 48 hours we increased server capacity by 120 percent. It’s working – the number of people who have gotten in and built cities has improved dramatically. The number of disrupted experiences has dropped by roughly 80 percent. So we’re close to fixed, but not quite there. I’m hoping to post another update this weekend to let everyone know that the launch issues are behind us.

Something Special for Your Trouble

The good news is that SimCity is a solid hit in all major markets. The consensus among critics and players is that this is fundamentally a great game. But this SimCity is made to be played online, and if you can’t get a stable connection, you’re NOT having a good experience. So we’re not going to rest until we’ve fixed the remaining server issues.  And to get us back in your good graces, we’re going to offer you a free PC download game from the EA portfolio. On March 18, SimCity players who have activated their game will receive an email telling them how to redeem their free game.

I know that’s a little contrived – kind of like buying a present for a friend after you did something crummy. But we feel bad about what happened. We’re hoping you won’t stay mad and that we’ll be friends again when SimCity is running at 100 percent. SimCity is a GREAT game and the people who made it are incredibly proud. Hang in there – we’ll be providing more updates throughout the weekend.”

So in summary, they have apologized, made changes to the product that will instantly help with sentiment towards the game and brand, are being responsive on social media, letting customers vent on their Facebook page, and ultimately will be offering a free product in the future.

EA is doing many things right, but they should have avoided this disaster in the first place. Companies have to start anticipating this demand, and leasing servers for overflow, or they will have complex PR issues such as these to deal with when similar titles are launched. EA was already voted the worst company in America, and SimCity is a game that everyone, not just gamers, knows and loves. This was a bad miscalculation but ultimately, I don’t think it will hurt EA at all. Until people stop buying these games en masse- and the marketing is just so good that it’s not going to happen- we’re all at their mercy.

I’m gonna go try to play again…*crosses fingers*…damn.

I hate you EA

Now what am I supposed to do- go outside?

Diablo 3 Review- One Month In

It’s been approximately one month since Blizzard unleashed Diablo 3 onto the world, and if you’re staying off of the official forums and playing the game less than 12 hours a day, you’re probably having a good time. If you’ve been on the official Blizzard forums you likely think the game is an unmitigated disaster, but I’d urge you not to read the official forums as just like any other game, they are total trash, full of racism, immaturity, and a sense of entitlement that all the iPhone 5’s in the world wouldn’t be able to sate. A lot of this stems from the initial release of Blizzard’s first “online only/always even for single player” game and the massive crush to get on the servers at launch. A lot of people were locked out at the very beginning- I couldn’t play until nearly 90 minutes after the servers first opened, for example- and this got the game off to sort of a rocky start, despite the fact that the game has largely been up since launch, with an expected rough patch at the beginning. To listen to some of the whiners talk, the fact that the game hasn’t had 100% uptime since the first minute is enough of a reason to write the game off as an utter and total failure.

I’d like to say a word here about the always-online nature of D3. Gamers…we did this to ourselves. I had a Kazaa phase in the early 2000’s where I simply “acquired” every single game that came out and if you say you’ve never played a game you didn’t pay anything for, I’d be inclined to call you a liar. Blizzard wants to be paid (rightfully) for their game and as such, the persistent Internet connection you need is for two reasons, as I see it- one, to combat the rampant piracy of Diablo 2- did anyone actually pay for that game? Two, the Auction House. I’ll cover that a little more in detail later in the post but the nature of the Auction House- especially the much lauded AND maligned Real Money Auction House- means that Blizzard can’t trust users with client-side data, otherwise, D3 will devolve into the same dupe-and-hack-fest that Diablo 2 was. There’s no way to make a game like Diablo III- by which, I mean, a game where the Auction House is a fundamental part of the design and experience- into an offline game. This has pissed off a lot of people with say, crappy or metered internet, and in particular, quite a few servicemen have chimed in that D2 was the game they played when deployed on a submarine or overseas, and now they are totally unable to play as they obviously can’t get an Internet connection. I mean, that’s a tough one…but there are tons of other games out there that don’t require a persistent connection. I’m just saying.

My main character is a female wizard named Teevo, here’s what she looks like and her stats and skill buildout:

I’ve also been running a Witch Doctor that’s up to about level 34 and a Monk that’s hit level 14. I run all these toons because I have at least 3 or 4 different groups that I play with, so I like to have toons at a lot of different levels. I eventually plan to have a 60 of all 5 classes- Monk, Barbarian, Wizard, Witch Doctor and Demon Hunter- so that I can fill any role that may come up. I’ve also been playing a Hardcore Wizard but she’s only at level 7 or 8- the current lag and lag spike situation has made Hardcore- where if you die once, that’s it, your character and gear are toast- a proposition for masochists only. There was a lag spike last Sunday night, in fact, that caused my ping to go over 1500 ms:

-and I live about 9 miles from Blizzard’s servers. I rubberbanded around for about 30 seconds and luckily was in a safe spot but I can only imagine how many Hardcore players lost their hours of work. Grr, frustrating. I ran through Normal difficulty solo and it was a serious cakewalk- I think I died maybe 2 times, due to being interrupted or not paying attention. In Normal, your build doesn’t matter, your gear doesn’t matter, you don’t even have to pay attention. Since skipping it isn’t an option, use your Normal playthrough to check out the *teehee* “story” and awesomely done cutscenes- you can skip them on your subsequent Nightmare, Hell and Inferno difficulty-level playthroughs by hammering the Esc key. And you will- because the plot is ridiculous and the voice acting is laboured, but I seriously hope that’s not what you bought or might be buying D3 for. D3 is about clicking on stuff until it dies, and complaining about the “plot” is ridiculous. As I mentioned, though, the CGI cutscenes are top notch, which we’ve come to expect in Blizzard games.

The game really starts to pick up in difficulty after 2 playthroughs, one on Normal and one on Nightmare. When you get to Hell difficulty the game really ramps things up- you were probably able to get by without the auction house until now and you were probably able to solo up until now as well. However, with the steep ramp up in difficulty between Nightmare and Hell- you’re going to be spending some money on gear at the Auction House, or hitting up your friends for their old weapons. Otherwise, you are looking at a very serious grind- anecdotally, I’ve only had useful items drop maybe every 3 Acts, meaning that I potentially might not see a drop I can use in all of Nightmare. However, the AH has lots of great gear, and for cheap- just set a max buyout of 10 or 20k and you’d be surprised how much of an upgrade you’ll be able to get. When I went from Nightmare to Hell mode I dropped 40k on a weapon that effectively doubled my Wizard’s DPS, and that was maybe 12% of my total gold stash. By the way…spend your gold. What are you saving it for? The Auction House can be as interesting as the game to play- I have already flipped a knife that I found for 750 gold for 110k gold. I find myself logging in at weird times, before work, before dinner, before bed, etc. just to see if I can spot an undervalued auction to buy and flip.

Oh, and get an authenticator. It’s either free if you have a smartphone or like $6 if you don’t, and even if you don’t plan to use the RMAH, do you really want to log in and find 120 hours of your game time negated by someone with a keylogger? GET. AN. AUTHENTICATOR. There is literally no reason not to have one. Here are links to download the apps:

https://play.google.com/store/apps/details?id=com.blizzard.bma&hl=en (Android)

http://itunes.apple.com/us/app/battle.net-mobile-authenticator/id306862897?mt=8 (iPhone)

The game is definitely a lot more fun with friends, it just feels like loot is better, even if it isn’t. It’s also nice to have someone there to rez you if you die- however, if you haven’t played the game once, I recommend soloing Normal just so you can see the plot and flavor dialogue, as subsequent playthroughs will largely be everyone in the party mashing the button to skip the conversation or Esc to skip the cutscene and get back to the demon smashing. Beware that 4 people in a party will cause A LOT of enemies to be on the screen at once, my 550ti has choked a little bit in places when the game essentially turns into a bullet storm/bullet hell type of screen for a few moments (I love it when the game goes that way, personally). It’s easy to jump in and out of friends’ games, but beware- if you take a character into a friend’s (or public, for that matter) game, you will lose any checkpoint progress you’ve made in “your” game and will have to restart at the beginning of whatever chapter you were on last. If you’re playing Hardcore or Inferno, you might want to disable the option for friends to quick join your games- you don’t want to face down mobs geared for 2 players while the late joiner repairs gear or buys potions.

Hopefully, you didn’t buy Diablo 3 for the crafting aspects, which right now are pretty crappy. You can break down items you find in the world for materials and then craft items with random magic properties; these items could be great and sell for millions on the Auction House, or they could be horrible Wizard-only weapons with +STR stats. You’re literally rolling the dice, and it’s expensive and time consuming to gather the drops and the gold to level your Jeweler and Blacksmith to the max level (10). At the time of writing this, my artisans are at level 6 and are likely going to stay at level 6 until I have 5 fully geared level 60 characters and I’m looking for a money sink.

I don’t know if Diablo is going to stand up to the thousands of hours that people played Diablo 2, especially if they don’t add a PvP aspect to the game so that people have an arena in which to flaunt their e-peens, but it’s off to a good start, in my opinion. The RMAH went live yesterday and that should lead to some interesting shennanigans, as well.

Play with me, won’t you? I’m SonOfADiddly#1736 on Battle.net. I’ll see you in Inferno!

 

Fran’s friends say:

“It’s definitely great, mindless fun. And has sucked away even more of the SWTOR subscriber base. ” -Scott

“Needs more polish, Blizzard needs to stop paying mediocre, lazy programmers minimum wage and start paying skilled programmers decent pay; otherwise, it’s an enjoyable time passer until Guild Wars 2. Also, the crafting system is supposed to mirror the gambling system from D2, if you think about it that way, the implementation makes sense.” -Nik

 “There are a lot of good and bad things to Diablo 3 (D3). A good start is comparing it to Diablo 2 (D2).  Whereas D2 required you to group and compete for single drops, D3 gives everyone their own loot. This is both good and bad. Good in that I don’t have to worry about getting drops. Bad in that there’s no sense of competition. 

Crafting is crap. You’re basically forced to gamble. What’s so ‘crafty’ about that? At least in D2 you could manipulate gambling. In D3 you’re at the mercy of your 100th+ INT items as a Barbarian. Oh, look at that, I’m going back to the auction house now. In D2 gold was worthless. D3? It’s more valuable (arguably) to gold farm and hit the AH for what you need. As a result, there’s less of a sense of accomplishment (but perhaps more of a sense of moving forward?). It still feels very awkward. Oh, yeah, the AH interface sucks balls. Terrible. Absolutely terrible. The search sucks. The sorting sucks. The layout sucks. The number of active auctions you can have sucks. But, at least it works (well, most of the time). Still, it’s a great idea. Let’s just make it useful?

D2 had game names. D3? Nope. You browse by quest you’re on. This removes the sense that there are ‘other’ games out there besides the people on your battle.net friends list or when you open a game to the public. I used to love game hopping in D2 from game to game on Baal runs. No more of that! Your Nephalem buff keeps you in one game re-running the same quests and storyline in long format.

The game is just very… a lot like WoW to be honest. The combat with procs and cooldowns–this is not uncommon to the Diablo franchise, but if you’ve played both D3 and WoW, you see it -everywhere-. But they didn’t go all the way. It’s like they got lazy. But, still, the crucial things are there: you click a lot and kill a lot of demons. There’s magic. Check.

In the end, you still zone out and have fun, but as soon as you wake up, you start to see some of the imperfections.” - Gary (wow, thanks Gary!)

Diablo 3 Launch Party Report and Initial Game Impressions- with Video

So unless you’ve been living under a rock somewhere, you know by now that Blizzard’s Diablo III has been released. This is a huge thing, obviously- people have been waiting over a decade for the third iteration of Blizzard’s classic “click on stuff with your mouse until it dies” franchise. The game is going to make Blizzard a pile of money, especially since they have brought the ability to buy and sell items for real money, which of course they will see a small part of.

I was in the beta for Diablo III, thanks to an inside hookup I have with a producer friend at Blizzard. I played through the beta one time with one character, and then proceeded to share my early access with every single person that asked for it :) I didn’t want to spoil anything too great past the first boss- the Skeleton King- and so even though there are lots of people out there with 100 hours in (in a 90 minute beta!), I’m not the poopsocky type. I did get a Collector’s Edition of the game for $10 through my Blizzard pal, however, and who doesn’t love a good hookup?

Monday night my friend Pat and I went to the launch party for Diablo III in Irvine. It was a pretty sweet setup, with a big stage, lots of signage, and tons of Blizzard employees. We were all the way at the back near the press area, and security kept telling us to move along, but we had a pretty decent vantage point for the show:

You had to buy the game from GameStop on site to be let into the big holding pen where everyone was lining up in front of the stage they had set up. This didn’t make a lot of sense to me- I mean, I had the game at home sitting on my hard drive already, why would people line up for 4 hours to get a physical box unless they wanted it signed? Why do people buy physical boxes anyway? And with the collectibles market being what it is- namely, finished, now that eBay is here- I was frankly surprised that people would want to wait that long. Still, it was very interesting to watch the cross-section of people who excitedly approached the harried GameStop clerk to buy the game- old, young, male, female, black, white, asian, hipster, yuppie- Diablo III really seems to have kindled something in a lot of people. I know personally people who basically quit playing video games 5 years ago that are making an exception for Diablo III! The party featured giveaways including new PCs, copies of the game, shirts, and the like, as well as live sessions with game producers and artists, including a half hour live drawing session that culminated in the artist chucking the sketch into the crowd. They showed lots of videos and cinematics from D1, D2 and D3 throughout the night- but we left after they brought the cosplayers out.

This put me home at about 10:30, plenty of time to watch Monday Night RAW (which was horrible, for the record) before diving in.

However, I wasn’t able to dive right in. The servers for the US launch, much like the servers for the Australian, Asian and English launches, didn’t work properly or they simply didn’t anticipate half a million people all trying to log in at 12 AM (though I doubt that, the hype surrounding this game has been insane). So, I ended up twiddling my thumbs until about 1:30 AM, then I finally got in but played for only 20 minutes before I had to go to bed. A lot of people are screaming about WHY DO I HAVE TO WAIT FOR SERVERS TO PLAY A ONE PLAYER GAME and to be fair, they have a point- but in 6 months no one will remember how bad the service was for the first 48 hours, so just chill out folks.

I have some friends who were able to play sporadically yesterday, I myself was kicked out after about an hour, and told that the servers would not be back up until midnight. What I did play was visceral and satisfying, classic Diablo- and it’s tough, too! I basically steamrolled all of act I only to get one shot by the first enemy in act II. All of the classic Diablo stuff is there- foreboding music, gritty visuals, the visceral punch of your character’s abilities. I’m just waiting for a period of server stability to get a couple characters going with some friends, but I have no doubt that we’ll all be playing D3 and its expansion packs for a long time to come. Check back in a few weeks for a more fleshed-out review. Thanks for reading! Bonus video coverage of the launch party:

Star Wars: The Old Republic- Endgame Impressions

So here’s my thoughts on The Old Republic’s endgame, now that I’ve been playing it for a few weeks. I hit max level on my first (and if history is any guide) only toon on February 11th, about 2 months after I’d started playing and with an ingame time of a little under 7 calendar days. I leveled my toon as a pure evil darkside sith Inquisitor, and my character is a Twi’lek (not that race makes a ton of difference). I mainly stayed away from PvP and I didn’t allow my guild to twink me through everything, I leveled pretty much solely through questing and grabbing a pug when a Flashpoint looked interesting. So what are you supposed to do at level 50, anyway? The short answer is, grind through the gear progression, pretty much like every other MMO. Specifically, you can:

Unlock and run dailies on Belsavis and Ilum

If you’re a player without a guild, this is the fastest way to start picking up some daily commendations, which you can turn in at the rate of 120 per piece of gear and 8 per equipment component (for upgrading weapons), to earn the first tier of PvE gear. Dailies are short missions (5-10 minutes each) that can be repeated once every 24 hours. Between Belsavis and Ilum, once you have unlocked the hubs and depending on how long it takes to find a group of 2-4 to complete some of the Heroic Dailies, as well as factoring in that at least one of them is still broken, you can earn enough Daily Commendations in about 5 days to buy a piece of T1 PvE gear. Multiply that times 9 slots and you could spend a month and a half getting yourself your first set of first tier of PvE gear. However, if you’ve made even a modest attempt to keep yourself geared, as long as you have good gear with level 50 or 51 implants you can start tackling the easier Hard Mode (haha) Flashpoints  such as Black Talon, which drop T2 PvE gear- you can essentially skip the first tier of PvE gear, if you want.  I also neglected to mention that you can make 7k credits or more per daily, meaning you can easily bank 200k a day just by doing dailies. Personally, I think the dailies get boring, I only get about 90 minutes on weeknights to play and dailies are what I usually do if I can’t find anything with my Guild or PvP. Besides, I am starting to get better gear than the dailies provide so even though it would be nice to have a full set…I don’t need it. It’s purely for the completionist in me or out of boredom that I do dailies any more- frankly, Skyrim is a better use of my scant gaming time, though I do enjoy doing the dailies as they are easy and a good way to meet new people.

Work on obtaining 3 tiers of gear for PvP- Centurion, Champion, and Battlemaster

Get in there and grind, soldier! There are dailies for PvP as well as weeklies, and with a certain number of wins (3) in a day (also 9 in a week), you get a gear bag, which will either contain a piece of champion gear or some Champion commendations and some Centurion commendations, which you can trade in for PvP gear on the Fleet. There are also dailies and weeklies for kills (30 and 130 each award a gear bag). Once you hit 60 Valor (PvP XP, essentially), you can instead choose to receive Battlemaster gear bags, which contain Battlemaster PvP gear. Gotta be level 60 to use those, though. I’ve not played a lot of PvP and so I can’t comment much- though I hear Sorcerors are overpowered and PvP is a mess of stunlocks, so my class will likely get nerfed- but I will say that the gear progression on PvP is super, SUPER RNG-based. If you get lucky you can pimp yourself out in a nice set of Champion gear fairly fast, if you’re unlucky you might open 10 bags in a row and not get a single piece. I don’t have a lot of motivation to play PvP for gear, frankly.

Work on obtaining 3 tiers of gear for PvE- Tionese, Columi and Rakata, Run Hard Mode flashpoints for gear, Run Operations for gear

Once you ding 50, you can start running Hard Mode flash points. The bosses of these drop tokens which are class specific- but not advanced class specific, so you still have a choice how to “spend” that drop- that you can turn into the vendors on fleet for Columi gear. Some of them drop pieces of Tionese gear as well. There are lists on the web of what order to start with, but you should definitely be able to do at least Black Talon as a fresh 50. After you are fairly well geared it’s time to start doing operations, which drop Columi gear and Rakata tokens, and then finally the end of end game is Hard/Nightmare mode Operations, which drop Rakata gear, the highest in the game (unless you count rare, crit-crafted gear that has an extra augment slot). There are currently 7 Flashpoints and 2 operations in the game, with one more of each coming in patch 1.2 (also a new PvP Warzone!)

Collect matrix cube shards to build your artifact and hunt holocrons to increase your stats

For the Pokemon “gotta catch em all” crowd, there are, scattered about the game, matrix cube shards that can be assembled into a powerful artifact, and holocrons that contain + stats to attributes. The most impressive of these is the nearly impossible to obtain (without Ventrilo and the Internet) +10 to all attributes Holocron, which resides on the central meeting place for the two factions. This is most fun with a bunch of buddies and some beers on Ventrilo, and is a great way to see a lot of scenic vistas, and it’s also a great way to satisfy compulsive min/maxers on the Inspect screen. BIG PROPS to my Guild, WTS Deathsticks, PST, on Nadd’s Sarcophagus; I think all officers and many other 50’s have obtained the +10 to All ‘cron through teamwork and copious yelling on Vent.

Reverse Engineer all your crafting recipes/Play the Galactic Trade Network

This should be pretty obvious- and it gets expensive. Gotta spend that 200k a day you make running dailies every day on something, right?

 

So what do I personally think of the endgame of TOR? Compared to the other MMO’s I’ve played (Guild Wars, EVE Online, TOR), there doesn’t seem to be a lot to do outside of gear progression and PvP. Bioware really, really, really really wants you to roll alts, lots of alts, see all 8 stories alts. I was home sick from work with a 103 degree fever and so I actually got to see the Guild Summit from Austin and every answer was  IT’S COMING IN 1.2 or WE’D LOVE TO DO THAT IN THE FUTURE. Frankly, 1.2 needs to add a ton to the game- I personally am waiting to see what the “Events Team” has been working on (supposedly, Bioware-run, gamewide events that affect everyone, think of the Rifts in Rift) to hang on to a lot of subscriptions, with Guild Wars 2 supposedly breaking a lot of paradigms and entering public beta. I really like Star Wars but here’s what  my daily play time (outside of Wednesday night Guild Nights, where we do have a ton of fun) looks like:

Log in.

Go to Fleet and pick up my dailies and/or weeklies if I need them.

Shop for materials and set up some crafting.

Ping general to see if anyone needs a Healer for a HM Flashpoint. Get bored spamming after 5 minutes, leave and go to Belsavis. Alternatively, shut down TOR and go play Skyrim.

Run Belsavis dailies, if it’s a cool group, continue to Ilum dailies. If I’m bored, switch to Skyrim.

Log off (it’s been 2 hours) OR:

Head to the Ilum PvP area and see if there are any Reps there to fight for my Ilum dailies- oh, wait, Ilum is so broken that they are scrapping it with more details coming later THIS YEAR. So there’s even LESS Ilum PvP than there used to be :(

Queue for Warzones. If it’s anything else but peak time, expect to wait 10-15 minutes with a 90% possibility of getting Huttball. Again. Get bored, log out, play Skyrim.


See what I mean? It gets old after a while. And once those 2 operations go down on Nightmare mode…I worry what will be left. Still and all though, I’m having a lot of fun and don’t feel like the $110 I’ve invested so far has been wasted. Will I re-up my sub? Depends on whether or not 1.2 comes out when they say it will, some time in April. Until then at least, I’m on Nadd’s Sarcophagus and I’m always looking to run a hard mode FP with ya!

 

 

 

Bioware’s The Old Republic- Impressions at Midway

So a few weeks ago, giddy with a week’s early access and a week off of work to play, I wrote up my initial impressions of The Old Republic, the new MMO based on the Star Wars Universe from Bioware. I’ve had a chance to play up to level 32 now, and I realize I still haven’t seen the whole game but I have seen a lot more! I haven’t played another game since I logged into TOR, and many of my guild mates are approaching 50, so I’ve seen a lot more. Here’s some of what I’ve seen:

I finally got my space ship. I didn’t get to pick, the game will assign you a ship based on your class. Inside the ship are a conference room, bedroom, storage area and bridge. It’s also where your companions hang out when they aren’t standing by your side, questing away. In addition to the aforementioned, the ship is how you get around from planet to planet, using the galaxy map. It’s sort of an unsatisfying experience- you enter your ship from its hangar on whatever planet you’re on and see a cutscene of your vessel leaving the atmosphere, then you are on your ship. You pick a location from the galaxy map, pay the fuel cost and hit the button- at which point the ship turns slightly to the proper angle, kicks into hyperspace for a few moments, slows, and drops you in orbit at the new location. You then exit your ship to another cutscene. I must say that this process makes changing planets pretty laborious as the cutscenes are the same every time- but you can skip them with the spacebar, just like the dialogue in quests.

Your ship is also the means by which you participate in “space combat”- which to me, is fun, but to others, has been called massively unsatisfying as there is no multiplayer or true space combat- you are taken through an on-rails sequence whereby the game flies the ship for you with minor corrections so you don’t smash into asteroids while you shoot blaster bolts and missiles at enemies, through geometry that allows the bolts to clip straight through, so there’s virtually no challenge. As long as you’ve ground out enough credits to buy the space ship upgrades appropriate to the current mission, it’s pretty easy. All of that said, I like the space combat and think it’s the most appealing portion of the game graphically, but I can definitely see how the on-rails and lack-of-multiplayer nature of what is essentially a minigame at this point would put people off. My bet’s on “full-fledged space combat is coming in an expansion, but they didn’t dare launch without it and so we got this”.

I finally got my speeder! It’s expensive, at 40k credits to train when you hit level 25. I have to say that I’m very glad to have purchased the collector’s edition, as the STAP that comes with it is pretty cool looking, and I’ve heard the other starter speeders described as looking like everything from a pimped-out wheelchair to a sorry Segway substitute. Getting on the speeder increases speed by 90%, a blessing for planets like Tatooine, where more than half of your play time will be taken up traversing the dunes between mission locations. There are also higher level speeders that grant up to a 110% movement speed bonus (for a million plus credits) as well as special speeders for being an Evil Bastard or a Goody Two Shoes. Being an Inquisitor, it’s nice because I can pop static field before I get on my speeder and it’s much harder to get knocked off for about 30 seconds. Additionally, mounting and dismounting your speeder restores all of your companions’ health. So far, the STAP is the only reason I’m not kicking myself for buying the worthless Digital Deluxe edition.

Speaking of companions, I’ve got three of them now! I didn’t realize this when I wrote my first post, but the way you craft in TOR is to send your companions on missions for you. Collect stuff in the field and then when you click on the companion interface, you can send them on missions to craft, or, depending on profession, come back with supplies or even increase your Light Side/Dark Side rating. I took Biochemistry, Bioanalysis and Diplomacy as my skills, and I still haven’t fully committed to crafting as it seems like a huge money sink, but I like the idea that I can craft WHILE I play, instead of having it be a zero sum game of spending time on either/or. Can’t wait to buy some better recipes and start playing the GTN (Galactic Trade Network- TOR’s version of an auction house)!

I finally got my last name for finishing Act I and I have to say I am very much enjoying playing a murderous puppy-kicking Sith. It makes the conversation choices a little boring, as I usually just always pick whatever is the most evil, but it’s also a departure for me- in games I almost always play a paragon of virtue, or I just go with what I personally would do in a given game situation, were it real. However, I’m trying with all my might to reach Dark V as I really like the gear that requires it, and I think the way my toon looks as her face cracks and eyes turn red is awesome. I always play the good guys but I’m having a ton of fun roleplaying a bad guy- and the story resolution to act I was supremely satisfying, at least as a Sith Inqusitor. Let’s just say…some people get what they have coming to them :)

A word of warning- I stayed on Balmorra, my third planet, way, WAY too long and essentially outlevelled most of Nar Shadda, Alderaan and Tatooine. I am sort of a completionist, wanting to do every  mission on every planet, but that did me no good- I haven’t changed headgear in at least 10 levels, for example. That led to me doing only class quests on Nar Shadda, Alderaan and Tatooine, but I’m heartened by the folks telling me that when I level alts, some of them will start on those planets. What a great way to see everything!

I’ll be back in a few weeks with high level and PVP impressions. Thanks for reading! I’m Eitodda Nurr in game, by the way, playing on Nadd’s Sarcophagus if you want to hit me up.

Star Wars: The Old Republic Initial Impressions

So, I have been following The Old Republic, the new massively multiplayer online game from BioWare set in the Star Wars Universe, over the course of an 8 year development cycle. If that seems like a long time for a video game to be in development- it is. It’s BioWare’s first MMO and the second set in the Star Wars universe- the first was the sometimes contentious and soon-to-be-sunset Star Wars Galaxies, which I never got into, and my gaming friends tell me that’s for the best. What really interests me about this one is that BioWare is well known for creating 1-player RPGs that are usually considered the cream of the crop- some of their titles include Neverwinter Nights, Mass Effect and Dragon Age. That’s quite a pedigree- but this is their first shot at an MMO. A fully-voice acted, story-focused MMO where the individual player’s story is supposed to be the main focus. Sounds ambitious, no?

I signed up on the forums for the game way back in 2009, and plunked down my $5 to pre-order the first day you could do so, back in July of this year. I didn’t have a functioning credit card at the time, so I called on my good friend Anwar Rodriguez- literally called him from the car on the way in to work- to reserve the game for me, which he did with his typical good humor and generosity. This means that I had entered my pre-order code into the website before 8 AM that day. I figured I would get an early beta weekend invite and I did, back in September- but I gave it to a guildmate and sometimes guest columnist on this blog, Brian DeWolf, as I figured he’d enjoy it more than I would. Also, I had just played the Deus Ex leak 3 times and as I started the actual game, was feeling quite bored with the first 10 hours. I didn’t want that to happen with TOR, so I have kept myself relatively virgin, even unsubscribing from the various forum threads I was watching back in early August. See, I don’t like hype- I like games, but I hate the hype- it’s why I doubt I’ll never attend Comic Con again, that is just a week of wall-to-wall “charging everyone up to buy stuff they had already planned to buy anyway”. I was resigned to (hopefully) start playing on 12/15, and thought that was pretty good- still 5 days early! However, I got my email at 4:23 AM yesterday and was able to put in about 2 hours last night (after my wife insisted we watch the Boardwalk Empire season finale because she was sick of people almost spoiling it). I don’t have the game in front of me, but from memory, here are my initial impressions.

The cinematics are absolutely fantastic. The game opening cinematic and my character’s class cinematic were basically so well-animated that I’m legitimately questioning whether or not we need actors any more. The cinematics were nearly Blizzard-quality, and if you play Diablo or Starcraft, you know that’s saying something. There’s not a ton of backstory given when you start the game as to the overall plot or your character’s individual arc, but I expect that to be fleshed out.

BE CAREFUL WHEN YOU SELECT A SERVER! I spent two hours playing a character on the wrong server last night because I mis-clicked the server my Guild was assigned at launch by a few pixels. There are both PvE and PvP servers available; my guild is on a PvP server and originally, this made me nervous- but from what I understand and can glean from the perma-testers I’ve run across, you really do kind of have to be looking for trouble to get in a scrap with another player, as the zones for the two factions (Empire and Republic) are kept pretty far apart. Why am I uncomfortable with the idea of open-world PvP? Well, I am a Grown-Ass Man with a full time job, some side stuff, and a wife and a daughter to give some time to, as well. I can’t have what’s maybe the 45 minutes a day I might get to game interrupted by some asshat whose idea of fun is destroying my fun. And trust me, if you read the thread at Something Awful about the game, the mix of young fans and people in their late 30’s could lead to some potentially grieftastic situations. I just want to have fun, not live an alternate life online or get ganked!

I’m going to be frank about the next item I experienced- character customization. How can I say this nicely? It sucks. There are 4 races available in Male and Female varieties per faction, with 4 body types. On my female Twi’lek Inquisitor, it seemed to be a choice between “waif” and “beast”, with little differentiation between the last 3 options. I also found the “head” customization option a little weird, maybe because I was a Twi’lek- but my face didn’t start looking different as I clicked through the available “heads” until I put makeup on my character. There are a total of 7 or 8 things you can customize, but there are weird things I don’t like such as “if you change styles of makeup, you can’t change the color- certain colors of blush and mascara and whatever other face stuff are tied to certain makeup patterns. There are only 8 eye colors, only 8 skin patterns, etc, etc- I think maybe I was spoiled by using Skyrim’s character creator so recently- that’s a pretty tough bar to leap over.  Anyway, I think it’s going to be very difficult to tell characters apart at low levels, until players start gearing up and differentiating themselves that way.

Star Wars: The Old Republic basically lets you know from the get-go that it is fairly standard as far as MMO’s go; you will literally get a fetch quest from your first contact less than 3 minutes into the game’s opening dialogue (at least as an Inquisitor, I did). I expected that though- but if you were hoping that BioWare had reinvented the wheel, I’m afraid you are out of luck. What’s cool though, is the combat. I was expecting the standard “whack away with your lightsaber and see numbers pop if you get hits” but was pleasantly surprised early on. I ran too far into a zone past an enemy and as I realized it I backed up. The enemy still swung at me, but my character actually parried with a situationally appropriate move- the game mechanics actually translated to the visual representation of combat, which doesn’t happen in games much, much less MMO’s. I was quite impressed!

Graphics are honestly nothing special, but I expect that from an MMO anyway. I have a fairly beefy i7 850 with 8 gigs of RAM and a (shitty) GPU that still allows me to run Skyrim on Ultra and get 40 FPS. I don’t think I was getting 40 FPS in TOR, but it was certainly enough to be serviceable. As always, the sound design in all Star Wars properties is amazing, and TOR doesn’t disappoint in this area either! Ambient music, blaster fire- even the clicks in the menus to customize your character are Star Wars, through and through.

More to come- give me a week to play this thing first! Happy Holidays, everyone!

 

PC Gaming- Skyrim Review

After spending 63 hours over the last month in Skyrim, I’m nowhere even close to completing what the game has to offer. However, I do feel that it’s time I wrote up a review. I’ve been looking for something other than SEO and social media to write about here, and this fits the bill nicely! No doubt you have already read a dozen or more reviews by now as well as forming your own opinion of the game; so hopefully, my take on things won’t bore you too excessively.

I would never tell the geeks on the message boards I hang around with this, but my first Elder Scrolls game was actually Morrowind on the original XBOX. I loved the game and couldn’t believe how it presented such a wide open world and just sort of let you treat it as a sandbox to do whatever you wanted. I spent many hours in the game, however, after the second time my 50+ hour save was corrupted I gave the game to a friend because I was so frustrated. He proceeded to play it for the next 3 years as he recovered from back surgery, culminating in an incident where he so over-enchanted his crafting gear that when he tried to make another potion, the XBOX gave him the equivalent of a BSOD and just quit out to the main menu. Now that’s powergaming!

Oblivion was the second iteration I played of an Elder Scrolls game, and unfortunately, was just a bit too ambitious for my hardware at the time. I bought the game and tried…gamely…to play it, however, FPS dropping to 4 every time a wolf attacks is not a good recipe for fun.  I got a new PC last November, and as such reinstalled Oblivion and the DLC as well as the Shivering Isles expansion. I proceeded to play maybe 40% of the way through the main quest about a dozen times with different toons, loving the intricacy and detail in the world but hating the way the plot “advanced”- and particularly hating the Oblivion gates, which were ugly and powerfully unfun. I still haven’t beaten the main questline in Oblivion, and probably never will. I have, however, looked up the plot synopsis and ending on Wikipedia, and it appears to be very good. The world was also beautiful and rife with possibility.

That brings us to Skyrim, my GOTY for 2011 barring The Old Republic being the best MMO since sliced bread. Skyrim places you in the series’ setting of Tamriel, a swords-and-sorcery high fantasy setting allowing for dragons, daedra, elves, orcs- all the standards we’ve come to expect from the genre. Much like the other games, Skyrim starts with you as a prisoner on your way to be executed, when Some Big Shit Goes Down and you are set free to make your own way through the world. TES games are unique in that you don’t distribute points manually to make your character get better- instead, you will find yourself becoming more adept at what it is you do most. So, swing a one-handed sword a lot and you’ll find your 1-handed skill going up. Pick a bunch of pockets, and it will become easier. Cast lighting bolts, Emperor-style, and your Destruction magic skill will go up. (Side note for series veterans: the Athletics and Acrobatics skills are gone from the trees, I guess Bethesda finally figured out that it’s game breaking to allow someone to tape down their space bar, jump for 3 hours while they watch a movie, and come back to their PC to have Spiderman in armor ready to go break stuff). This means that over time, you will feel your character get better at whatever their concentrated skill focus is- my Breton battlemage (lightning on the left hand, Ebony sword on the right) went from barely slicing the skin on orcs to sending enemies flying 40 feet with finishing blows and first-person decapitations for critical strikes. The player also gets Perks when they advance a level, allowing for rewards based on customization. Spread your perks too thin, and you’ll be getting things like a 10% increase to heavy armor. Specialize in one school of destruction and max out the perk tree, however, and that will lead to things like “double-casting lightning spells will disintegrate enemies. Pretty sweet, and it rewards the player for customizing their toon and not trying to be a jack-of-all-trades. This also increases replay value!

One of the other things that’s unique about Skyrim as opposed to some of the other RPGs you may have played in the past is that it is completely non-linear. As soon as the opening sequence ends (it’s pretty thrilling, for the record, but too long to sit through to roll multiple characters. Make a save before the game starts asking you to define your character so you don’t have to keep revisiting  the introduction) the player is free to do…whatever they want, to whomever they want. You can go anywhere, do anything, kill (almost) anyone, work on your alchemy, smithing, or cooking skills, or simply just explore the land. (Minor spoiler alert- you should advance the main quest at least to the point where you fight the first dragon; you will be missing out on a pretty major part of the game if you don’t. I kind of wish the game forced you to do that fight as it’s pretty crucial to having fun in the game that you do). There are several factions in the game- some of which include the returning Thieves’ Guild and Dark Brotherhood- and some new ones as well, including the Companions and the College of Winterhold. You complete a quest line ranging anywhere from 7 to dozens of quests long, and eventually come to be seen as a powerful figure within those individual factions. As with all Elder Scrolls games, Skyrim is not a direct, linear sequel to Oblivion, so there are newly introduced factions like the Empire and the Stormcloaks that see you through choosing up sides in a Civil War or the Greybeards, who request your assistance defeating an ancient terror that has returned to the province.

The graphics are honestly nothing special up close, the character models aren’t even as good looking or differentiated as they were in Oblivion; though you don’t have to zoom in on an NPC’s face to talk to them anymore, the game lets you converse at waist level like a normal conversation. However, the vistas and dungeons are spectacular- the feeling you get in a TES game of limitless possibility is definitely enhanced by the long draw distance and detail in the graphics. I found myself thinking “self, everything in Skyrim is so….bleak!”, and wishing for some beautiful lush vistas like those in Oblivion- but it just wouldn’t fit the setting. Besides, there are some hidden gems that will temporarily warm you up as you explore the icy reaches of Skyrim’s vistas. Don’t expect any awesome cutscenes, though- as is tradition  with TES games all of the story is told with in-game assets, and if you don’t pay attention you might miss a major conversation or event. The game definitely does not hold your hand, and you’ll find yourself looking up on the Internet why you’re doing a particular quest once your journal starts to fill up if you go too long in between play sessions. I’ve completed over 100 quests and still feel like I’m about half done with the game.

Combat is much improved from Oblivion but I have heard people complain that it lacks “meatiness”. For me, zapping enemies from range and then slicing at them with my one-handed sword has been a viscerally satisfying experience, but the one complaint I do agree with is that dungeons and areas may be filled with 90% mobs that you will easily defeat, and then the boss one-shots you. There could have been a bit more thought put into balance, there, and perhaps save scumming wouldn’t be so rampant. That reminds me, it’s also trivially easy to break the game through abuse of the smithing, alchemy or enchanting schools. You can forge a thousand iron daggers and improve them, and be walking around in full Dragonscale armor at level 1, which is sort of silly, but who am I to tell you how to enjoy your game? The biggest combat improvement is that enemies no longer scale as they did in Oblivion, which could lead to situations like a group of bandits on the side of the road wearing full glass armor. Bethesda seems to have listened to its’ player’s complaints that they want to feel more powerful over time, and that leveling up in Oblivion actually made the character weaker in relation to the scaling enemies. None of that in Skyrim though, if you enter a dungeon at level 8 the enemies are locked at level 8. Go ahead and come back at 30 and blast them into powder if you want- much like traditional TES games, the player becomes basically a walking god by the end. That’s a good thing, because it’s reported that a player needs from 200-300 hours to see all the content in Skyrim,.

My biggest problem with the game is trying to finish enough of the main quests that I won’t feel guilty putting it down when The Old Republic comes out, a week from tomorrow. My goal is to finish major story arcs (the game tracks for you how many you’ve completed) in time for TOR, then pick Skyrim back up when the first expansion pack comes out. See you out there!

 

Fall 2011 Gaming Lineup- What’s Got YOU Excited?

I’ve always been a PC gamer, starting back in the early 80’s when my parents refused to get us a Nintendo yet we were allowed to have an Apple IIc, which, as everyone knows, is responsible for lots of people’s getting hooked on games! I’ve had some forays into consoles, of course, I finally got an NES about 4 years after everyone else did, then a Genesis, then a Nintendo 64 in college- bought after I hit a full house for $1500 playing Texas Hold ‘em at the casino. I also had a Dreamcast and of course, an XBOX- went the PS3 route after HD video lost out to BluRay as the standard. Nowadays, I do almost all of my gaming on PC, as being in my office with my big monolithic machine allows me to have a little privacy at night after work, fatherly and husbandly duties are wrapped for the day- plus, I don’t have to fight with my wife for the HDTV that way. Hey, a $300 graphics card update every 3 or 4 years is a small price to play, right? Let me run down the games that will have me cloistering myself in the next few months. Feel free to leave a comment if I missed something! All release dates are for North America, since that’s where I live!

 


Deus Ex: Human Revolution
- 08/23/2011

Company line: “You play Adam Jensen, an ex-SWAT specialist who’s been handpicked to oversee the defensive needs of one of America’s most experimental biotechnology firms. Your job is to safeguard company secrets, but when a black ops team breaks in and kills the very scientists you were hired to protect, everything you thought you knew about your job changes

Badly wounded during the attack, you have no choice but to become mechanically augmented and you soon find yourself chasing down leads all over the world, never knowing who you can trust. At a time when scientific advancements are turning athletes, soldiers and spies into super enhanced beings, someone is working very hard to ensure mankind’s evolution follows a particular path.

You need to discover where that path lies. Because when all is said and done, the decisions you take, and the choices you make, will be the only things that can change it.”

The Deus Ex series hasn’t had a release in about 8 years, when the vastly-inferior-to-the-sequel-because-of-console-dumbing-down “Invisible War” hit. I still thought it was a very good game even if it was short; not as good as the original Deus Ex but still good. I’m very much looking forward to the new game as a way to bridge the gap between now and whenever D3 and TOR come out. At about 40 hours of gameplay if you do everything and about 25 hours if you don’t, this is a nice sized game that also lends itself to multiple playthroughs. Deus Ex is pretty singular in the world of gaming, it sort of plays like a Morrowind but with a cohesive story. You decide how you want to play- guns blazing, stealth, or an adaptive approach. The game features FPS and RPG as well as social and puzzle-solving elements presented in a near-future backdrop set in real-world locations such as Detroit. This one has been kind of low on my radar, but there was an early leak of the press version, so you can actually play the first 10 hours of the game right now if you can’t wait until the 24th. Plus, if you buy it on Steam, the Augmented version comes with a copy of Invisible War that you can play to tide yourself over!

 

 

Star Wars- Knights of the Old Republic- No release date yet, strongly believed to be Q4 of 2011

Company Line: “Play Star Wars™: The Old Republic™ and be the hero of your own Star Wars™ saga in a story-driven massively-multiplayer online game from BioWare and LucasArts.

Explore an age thousands of years before the rise of Darth Vader when war between the Galactic Republic and the Sith Empire divides the galaxy.

Choose to be a Jedi, a Sith, or from a variety of other classic Star Wars roles, and make decisions which define your personal story and determine your path down the light or dark side of the Force. Along the way you will befriend courageous companions who will fight at your side or possibly betray you based on your actions. Together, you will battle enemies in dynamic Star Wars combat and team up with other players to overcome incredible challenges.

Join us. Your personal Star Wars saga begins in Star Wars: The Old Republic.”

I have a lot of love for the Star Wars franchise, I even like the prequels! I’ve been waiting for a new MMO to play for a while, the last one I played seriously was Lord of the Rings Online, which I quit a couple of years ago as I got bored with the endgame which was “look for first age weapons in between doing two raids over and over”. SWTOR promises to let me play the badass Sith Inquisitor I’ve always wanted to play, and without the disastrous gaffes of the current Star Wars MMO, Galaxies- which incidentally, is closing down later this year (I guess they don’t want two MMOs based on the same IP active at the same time). Star Wars TOR is shaping up to be a pretty standard MMO, nothing too new or innovative coming out of the beta leaks except that every line in the game- meaning every NPC, every throwaway fetch quest is voice-acted. This game has been in development for nearly a decade and while I don’t think it’s a WOW-killer, I certainly think they are going to try. I give BioWare a lot of credit for taking on such an IP- surely fans will run the gamut from hardcore poopsocking MMO players to little kids that just love the movies and want to pew pew some stuff.  Supposedly there are 200 hours of gameplay for EACH of the 8 classes, though I have reservations about how many of those hours will cross over from class to class. Look for my guild- “WTS Deathsticks PST” in game, on day one!

 


Diablo 3
- No release date yet, beta is rumored to start this September

Company Line: “Two decades have passed since the demonic lords, Diablo, Mephisto, and Baal, set out across the world of Sanctuary on a vicious rampage, twisting humanity to their unholy will. Yet for those who battled the Prime Evils, the memory fades slowly.

When Deckard Cain returns to the ruins of Tristram Cathedral seeking clues to defeat new stirrings of evil, a fiery harbinger of doom falls from the heavens, striking the very ground where Diablo once entered the world. This fire from the sky reawakens ancient evils and calls the heroes of Sanctuary to defend the mortal world against the rising powers of the Burning Hells once again.”

Is there anyone reading this column that hasn’t played Diablo II? The isometric hack-n-slash RPG revolutionized online gaming with friends and changed everyone’s idea of what an online game could be, as it compelled players to play through over and over to improve their ladder standings and of course- LEWT! PHAT LEWT! PURPS AND GOLDS! D3 is really a whole genre of game in itself, you could even call it “loot-based”. Modern games like Borderlands have this “loot basis” to thank for their design. The most interesting thing I’ve seen about this so far is that there will be servers where you can buy and sell weapons and items for actual money. Should I quit my job and just raid 18 hours a day? How much can I make? Will this fall flat on its face? Remains to be seen, but Blizzard usually knows what they are doing. It’s a toss-up, I can’t decide if I’m more excited for SW:TOR or D3. Hard to say! Heck, after the embarrassing lack of games that came out that I wanted to play last year, I’m glad to have $300 worth of titles to buy in Q4 of 2011.

 

 

The Elder Scrolls 5- Skyrim- 11/11/2011

Company Line: “Epic Fantasy Reborn: Skyrim reimagines and revolutionizes the open-world fantasy epic, bringing to life a complete virtual world open for you to explore any way you choose.

Live Another Life, In Another World: Play any type of character you can imagine, and do whatever you want; the legendary freedom of choice, storytelling, and adventure of The Elder Scrolls comes to life like never before.

All New Graphics and Gameplay Engine:Skyrim’s new game engine brings to life a complete virtual world with rolling clouds, rugged mountains, bustling cities, lush fields, and ancient dungeons.

You Are What You Play: Choose from hundreds of weapons, spells, and abilities. The new character system allows you to play any way you want and define yourself through your actions.

Dragons Return: Battle ancient dragons like you’ve never seen. As Dragonborn, learn their secrets and harness their power for yourself.”

The Elder Scrolls series are about a huge adaptable world where the player can try any character they want. The first Elder Scrolls game I played was Morrowind on XBOX, and unfortunately at the 45-hour mark on TWO separate occasions my character wiped and I was too frustrated to go back and start over. However, I gave the game to a friend and he played it to the point where he has seen everything, can one-hit kill any enemy, and has so much money that the system is having trouble keeping track of it. I still remember my first experience playing the game, which was ingesting a poison that allowed me to jump hundreds of feet in the air- unfortunately, as I soon found out, I wasn’t able to land without pureeing myself. This is a game that you can truly play however you want- think Fallout 3- and merits multiple playthroughs. Let’s hope they get rid of the level-scaled enemies that Oblivion had (I still think Oblivion is great). I look forward to wasting another 200 hours in Tamriel!

Why didn’t I include Mass Effect 3 on this list? Unfortunately, it won’t be out until March, but it’s safe to say that I’m highly anticipating that one as well! Gotta finish my pure Paragon and Renegade playthroughs before then!

What’s on your radar? Did I miss something?

 

How I Learned to Stop Worrying and Love the Internet

So, Friday night, I laid down and passed out at about 8 PM, intending to only take a short nap.  My wife came in and tried to wake me up but apparently that wasn’t gonna happen.  I’m even stubborn in my sleep!  About 2:30 AM I heard my daughter coughing and when I woke up, I knew I was up, that was it- I only get about 6 hours of sleep on a good night and my body was just ready to be awake.  Luckily, my good friend, Seattle artist Nikki Burch (she’s really good, pay her to draw you something!), was also online, as she’s wont to be late at night.  We got into an IM conversation that got me thinking about my history with the Internet, and I thought it might interest regular readers to hear how I ended up doing what I’m doing, when I certainly didn’t plan to end up in this field or even this state! So, Nikki, thanks for the inspiration.  I would have just played Battlefield or something if we hadn’t talked :).  This is gonna be a long one, twice as long as normal, so get a cup of whatever and settle in.  Personal stories incoming!

Growing up, I had 3 younger brothers.  We lived in Grosse Pointe Woods, which is a very shi shi suburb of Detroit, even though our family didn’t really have the means or the pedigree to be there.  We’d moved there after my parents got sick of driving the 3 hour round trip twice a day from Port Huron so that we could attend a very exclusive school my next youngest brother and I had partial scholarships for.  Point being, we didn’t have a lot of money for entertainment type stuff- but I do remember my parents buying an Apple IIc for Christmas of 1984.  I’d been lucky to have been exposed to computers starting in first grade- hey, this was the early 80’s and all this stuff was still new.  Right away, I was fascinated with writing basic programs that could ask for an answer and return a response based on the User’s input.  Then, the games came.  First, we started out with “educational games”- I still remember a pilot-able red blood cell named Arby Sea from some inside-the-body adventure game whose name escapes me.  Now, my cousins had always had Nintendo from the get go, and my brothers and I would beg our parents to stay the night at their house, 45 minutes away in Brighton, so we could play Punch-Out, Pro Wrestling (Starman was the shit!) and Top Gun. My parents hated it though, and thought gaming was a waste of time.  However, with the easy ability to copy programs on the IIc, I was able to try out classic games like Hard Hat Mack, Conan the Barbarian, Spy vs. Spy, and California Games- are there any other hacky sack simulators on the market, even now? I even remember the old Commodore 64 command to start playing Beach Head with my buddy Dave- *,8,1. Oh, and can any of us forget the Konami Code? I know you’re remembering it in your head right now, ya geek!

 

The Konami Code

 

We sort of lost interest in the IIc as we were exposed to more and more powerful computers in school. I remember taking a “computer graphics” class where clone stamping the eyeball part of a picture of a face and then dragging around the screen could actually get you points on an assignment.  I remember doing graphic images of Stonehenge at night and a pool table with the balls in motion that would embarass me mightily now- I think my mom still has those in her living room in their green frames, almost 20 years later.  I had a CAD class taught by the football coach that only required one drawing a semester.  I finished the drawing the third day and promptly looked for ways to start getting in trouble, and it just so happend that the students at my school had hacked the fledgling network to include not only some fairly disturbing (to a 9th grader) porno but also a playable copy of Out Of This World.  So, from then on, I was playing Out Of This World 5 days a week in 3rd period, and that was it. I was hooked.

 

Out of This World

 

The Internet didn’t really start to come into mainstream fruition in America’s rube belt, the Michigan-Ohio-Kentucky corridor, until I was a senior in high school, around 1994.  Now, my family didn’t even get cable TV until I was 16, so there was no way we were going to get AOL or whatever that thing was.  In addition, there was a concurrent severing of the marital estate happening and if you think a family of 6 is probably pretty poor, wait until the parents get divorced.  There was never enough money for anything;  however, I do remember using Prodigy and Netscape Navigator to access BBS and message boards from friends’ houses, and they started trying to teach us to use the Internet to do research at school, too- but they were out of their league.  The kids knew more than the teachers did, and they usually still do.

My first ever email address was irwinfra@pilot.telnet.msu.edu, assigned to me by Michigan State University in 1994.  Lookit that monster!  My noobishness at the time is evident, as that same year I made my first every Yahoo! email address- using the username “irwinfra”.  I’ve never updated it, because it’s nearly 20 years old and I have a soft spot in my heart for Yahoo!, even if their new email interface is atrocious and the company continues to slide.  My first experiences on the Internet were applying for financial aid, emailing professors and TA’s and doing chemistry homework on their online system.  Then I moved off campus, and Starcraft happened.

 

Starcraft

 

I should explain my living situation at the time- I lived in a house with 12 students who’d come to the States from Hong Kong, Singapore, Korea and Japan.  Naturally, they took frequent trips to Toronto- it’s apparently a hub of Asian culture on the East coast, or it was, at least- and would come back with modded Playstations that could play discs that had 200 different fighting games and whose .iso’s were free to download, and I would be completely agog that anything like that existed.  They knew a lot more about Starcraft and PvP gaming than I did- though I’d had a lot of exposure to things like Command and Conquer and Civilization II in the dorms, until they throttled gaming bandwidth- and were able to set up a LAN that allowed us to play huge 4v4 games that would go on in spite of class, Thursday night drinking, girls, dates, homework, whatever- it didn’t matter. Between Starcraft and Ocarina of Time’s water dungeon level, I probably ended up staying in school a whole extra semester than was necessary.  I know for a FACT that that damn stone you have to remember to swim under after you flood the temple with water owes me 6 credit hours’ worth of tuition.

 

Water Temple

 

I still wasn’t using the ‘Net socially, however, until I finished school and moved back to the southeast part of the state, this time to Detroit.  I landed in some weird roommate and money situations where I didn’t have much of an entertainment budget and so I turned to the Internet- what the hell was a message board, anyway?  The turning point was Kevin Smith’s magnum opus, Jay and Silent Bob Strike Back- there’s a message board referenced in that movie called ‘moviepoopshoot.com’.  The site has gone through several revisions now, first becoming Quick Stop Entertainment and now A Site Called Fred. Anyhow, I decided to see if moviepoopshoot.com was a Real Thing, and lo and behold, it was.  This was my first true online community where there was actually a core group of 20-30 regulars and it really FELT like a community- there was a mod that actually did something- what’ s up Chris Ryall- and regulars, a pecking order and power structure, special rules for ingrained members, etc. etc.  You know, all of the stuff that makes a message board simultaneously one of the best and one of the worst things ever?

As it happened, one of the other posters on the board, Denyse, who I had never seen and knew only by handle, was going to be in Chicago for a recruiting drive.  I had already met one of the other dudes on the board, as he lived in Michigan as well, so we made plans to drive to Chicago and meet Denyse and two of the other girls from the board who were going to be there. I didn’t know this at the time, but this was an utterly cold-blooded ambush.  My now wife needed to see if I had three heads or any other weird deformities.  I’m not a huge believer in true love- Denyse, sorry honey, if you’re reading this- but this was the closest damn thing possible.  I’m not the sharpest tool in the shed about this kind of thing, so after several clueless hours it dawned on me that maybe she liked me?  We stayed up most of the night talking and laughing, and three days later I was flying to California using her frequent flier miles, to stay for a week.  Then, she flew to Detroit two weekends in a row, I flew back to CA for another week and met her friends (I was a teacher at the time, and on summer vacation), she came back to Michigan- and then we realized we were out of frequent flier miles.  We decided one of us needed to move, and I decided that Orange County, California had better job prospects than Detroit.  WOW, WHAT INCREDIBLE FORESIGHT, RIGHT?

 

Detroit's unemployment rate

 

I packed all of my stuff into a cargo container and shipped it.  I shipped my 2 cats on a flight, Denyse picked them up and took them home (where they promptly hissed at and hid from her- which they are still doing, 7 years later), then she got on a plane and flew to Detroit.  We had breakfast with my family and then drove back to CA, leaving Detroit at 8 AM Friday and getting into the OC (don’t call it that) at about 5 PM on Sunday, after sticking to Denyse’s absolutely brutal driving pace.  I remember wanting to stop and Denyse stating over and over “30 more miles, 30 more miles”- and then it was 6 hours later and we were still in the car.  She’s such a trooper. Love you babe!  Anyway, after a year spent living together making sure we weren’t going to kill each other over hairs in the sink or something, I proposed at our good friends Dan and Tracy’s annual Halloween bash, and she accepted.  I had reached the end of the Internet, there was nothing left; I mean, after you meet your spouse, anything else you can do online is going to pale in comparison, right?

Nope.

In the meantime, there had been some drama on the moviepoopshoot forums, I acted like a big baby over some stupid things that happened and actually left the boards and the ‘Net for a while, only using my connection to the world to play Everquest and Age of Mythology. Luckily, the relationships I built with friends I met there transcended that board, and many of those moviepoopshoot.com denizens are still in touch.  I had sworn off of social media as a silly waste of time, and I didn’t give myself any credit either-  my obsession with checking the forums first thing in the morning, or first thing after work had had me thinking that I couldn’t handle an environment where no one really took it seriously- because I take everything seriously! Just because you “meet” someone on the Internet doesn’t mean they aren’t real!    My life is living proof.  Here’s a picture that our awesome friend Tracy got us for our wedding, drawn by Movie Poop Shot’s resident cartoonist at the time, Bryan Lynch, who made this, that proves it:

 

denyse and fran

 

I had already taught middle and high school science and computers, and had learned to have a stage presence (teaching is acting) and of course nearly- nearly- limitless patience.  I actually got to use that Communications degree (don’t laugh too loud, please) for the first time, giving training sessions to first 3 executives, and then 400 plumbers, all on the same day. That taught me the rush that comes from really giving a good speech or presentation.  I rediscovered my interest in social media when working for a small job board, GoJobs.com, a few jobs into my second career after teaching school, which started as a trainer.  My boss at the time, Jonathan Duarte, basically encouraged me to learn as much as I could about SEO, which led me to my current path, which led me to be more social than I ever would have planned to or wanted to be.  I never in my life thought I’d be writing a blog- my gosh, the ego needed!- but here we are.  I never thought I’d join another message board, but I’ve found a home with a good one I dare not link to- most of you know what it is already, anyway.  I never EVER thought I’d need a Twitter or be so excited to get an early invite to Google Plus.  I’ve rediscovered the social side of the Internet, and I’m glad, because it’s here to stay.  How long will it be until we’re all connected to the Internet and each other with implants that attach directly to our brain stem?

 

Motoko Kusanagi

Trust me, I’m not just a perv what likes anime.  This image is relevant.  It’s coming.  It’s gonna suck, but it’s gonna be awesome too.