May 29, 2014

[In Defense of Escapism]

I recently came across an essay by Katherine Addison, defending the value of fantasy as a genre and escapism in general, and I think it's relevant to MMORPGs (and RPGs in general) as well:
"The denigration of 'escapism' comes from an implicit belief that it is brave and necessary and heroic to face 'reality,' where 'reality' is grim and dark and nihilistic ('solitary, poor, nasty, brutish, and short,' as that tremendous pessimist Thomas Hobbes puts it), and that if you turn away from that 'reality,' you are a deserter and therefore a coward. 
There are a number of fallacies here. One is the claim to the exclusive right to define 'reality.' Second, if this is an accurate definition of 'reality,' it is a fallacy to believe that it is even possible to desert from the front lines by anything short of suicide. Even if your consumption of fiction takes you away from 'reality' for an hour or two, you’re always going to have to come back. Clearly, if we accept this definition of 'reality,' 'escapism' can only be the most tremendous blessing fiction has to offer."
Read the rest here.

May 3, 2014

[Pantheon Has Fallen, But McQuaid Can Still Go Lower]

Color me completely unsurprised:
"It's widely agreed upon by all parties that this project took in roughly 145 thousand dollars. A large chunk of that money, 35k, came from a single individual who promised another couple hundred thousand once he cleared it with his trust. Brad was having personal problems at the time and needed to take a cash advance from the project. He took roughly three months pay in advance which equaled roughly 38% of the funds that were left. Brad thought the rest of the money would come in, but the trust supervisor declined without even looking into the project. Reason being, he didn't want to be sued if the start up failed. Brad admits that it was a mistake and wishes things worked out differently but the money is spent and there isn't anything he can do. He then went on to express that he was sorry for how it happened and is planning on liquidating personal assets to put the funds back into the project."
 Why on earth are so many fanboys still willing to give this nostalgia-exploiting hack their money? He did NOT single-handedly build EverQuest and Vanguard, despite what so many fanboys seem to believe. Teams of hundreds of other talented people put their real work into those games (as opposed to just loftily spouting 'Visionary' ideas around, which are worth exactly squat without actual effort behind them), and in the second example McQuaid was the one who ran that real work into the ground and lied to and exploited everyone around him the entire time.

This cult-attitude many oldtime MMO fans have of deifying this man as some kind of visionary who single-handedly makes 'dream MMOs' baffles me, particularly in the light of everything we know about how he mismanaged and destroyed Vanguard. Despite so many fans' attempt to rewrite the history of that debacle as being everyone else's fault but Brad's, the real facts of the matter are still public online for anyone who cares to see them. Which I hope people will do before tossing any more cash in this guy's direction.

But then on top of this all, he skims almost 40% of Pantheon's Kickstarter money to cover his own personal bills. Nobody should give this joker a dime for any future MMO project ever again, no matter how many nostalgia-tinged PR shills or game concept mockups (or tiered monthly subscription plans for the ability to post on the game's forum) that he rolls out.

Related Reading:
Pantheon: Rise of the Fallen's Financials Under Scrutiny
Brad 'The Vision' McQuaid, Round Two

Feb 10, 2014

[Planet Explorers - Demo Impressions Part 2]

In regards to my original digging experiment -- I brought stone pickaxes and two shovels back to my original hole -- but the quality of the tool didn't dig any deeper per swing, which was disappointing since it got pretty slow once I hit rock (even after switching to the stone pickaxe). Tool quality only affects the types of material you get per swing and durability, not how quickly you clear out the ground. So even though I made some good depth progress, because of the slowness and the lack of underground features I decided to move on. I'm curious to know how deep the world goes, if that's listed anywhere on the official site. However, it seems that spelunking outside of harvesting minerals is not a focus of Planet Explorer.

After getting my initial set of quests out of the way and recruiting an NPC partner (some quest-givers can be recruited into a posse and equipped as you see fit), I wanted to head out and see what I could accomplish on my own, so I picked a random direction as being good as any to start in. As I walked along I also noticed another of those small furry things (called Lepus Hares by the survivors I spoke to) actively chasing one of the cowardly dinosaur-bugs I'd killed earlier -- which made me wonder how deep the ecology simulation is, and if you can farm plants or animals (and after checking the Planet Explorers FB page posts, it seems farming IS a thing). In the distance under one of the cliffs I also spotted a pair of giant black spider-crabs, which I avoided (only temporarily, as it turns out).

Apparently the scary things come out at night on Maria -- after walking around aimlessly a bit and being chased down by a giant bird (and then saved by some poison-spitting animals that ganged up on it when I accidentally led it into their herd) a black spider crab eventually ran up and 2-shot me (I didn't manage to get a picture before it murdered both my sidekick and myself). Fighting is kind of a pain because targeting is based on physically lining yourself up (in the case of the bow or gun) so if you're not straight on you will miss since hitboxes are pretty small for objects and there is no targeting lock or other indication that your crosshair is aimed at the proper place. The game's physics are also floaty in general, and the camera is not locked to your character so you have to aim it separately if you want to turn. I assume most of these nuisances are Alpha issues, and I really hope the steering/targeting stuff is improved for release because there is definitely some potential here. But instead of continuing to deal with story mode survival I decided to move on and check out the game's free-build options.

When starting a free-build map you can type in a seed (any combination of letters or numbers) to generate a map, as well as select the climate and biome. Although map generation is still obviously unfinished at this stage, there is a nice variety of terrain and flora in the different environments from red rock cliffs to forests and plains. You get unlimited numbers of every material and object and you can freely import user-created objects as well. Since vehicles and weapons are the only things you can create right now and the world generation is incomplete, there is only limited appeal to exploring very far.

Players can design weapons and flying/ground vehicles (the option to create buildings was in an earlier alpha build so I assume that is planned for the future as well). There is also the ability to import custom textures and decals as decoration. Every material you choose affects the various statistics of the object you're making -- for example, building a helicopter with a light-weight wood frame via a heavy metal one affects lift and other aspects of handling. The creation tools seem very robust, but perhaps not the most user-friendly -- steering vehicles also feels floaty and unresponsive, and it's hard to tell how much of it is from crafting flaws vs just the game's own control issues.

Parking an aircraft is tricky

There are various gameplay features in Planet Explorers that need more fleshing out in order to be more enjoyable, but as the projected release date is late-2014 there is time for things to be polished up. As a Minecraft player whose main draw to that game is the unlimited exploration and building, what is available so far in Planet Explorers is not really enough for me. I may check it out again in a few months if/when a beta version is released -- however, there is also the specter of EQNext likely giving this game some stiff competition.

Planet Explorers will be available via Steam Early Access at the end of February, with a full release by the end of the year.

Jan 24, 2014

[Planet Explorers - Demo Impressions Part 1]

Planet Explorers is a voxel-based building and survival game I've been mildly interested in since it was announced almost two years ago, so when a new PC Demo was released this week I decided to finally give it a closer look.

Character creation is very basic. The color palette allows pretty much any color you like for any feature, so if you want to be a blue kid with green hair (or another, more mundane, color scheme) then the sky's the limit, though many of the colors are a bit too saturated, imo. There are placeholder spaces for other options but only gender, eyes, skin, and hair can be tweaked at the moment. Character animations are also kind of rough, and the (voiced) quests also have some audio missing (it being an Alpha, and all).

The game has a story mode (with familiar-style quests and an overarching plot), and a pure sandbox free-build mode. Story-mode world maps are static, but eventually the plan is for multiplayer worlds to be procedurally-generated. I started with the story mode, and got a simply-animated cutscene depicting the ill-fated landing attempt of a colony ship onto the planet 'Maria'. My first quest after awakening at a shuttle crashsite was to gather some wood to make a shovel so I could dig supplies out from under the shuttle debris to help a fellow survivor. Lore-wise it seems characters have 'replicators' that just need some raw material to synthesize whatever tool they need made. For example, to make medicine you just need some cuttings from the right plants and the recipe learned, and the replicator does the rest.

Despite a tutorial pop-up which explained how to learn and use crafting recipes, it still took me a few moments to figure out that attacking trees (left click) does not work like it does Minecraft and I had to right click on them with my equipped tool in order to actually chop them down. It is also a bit fidgety to know what to target since interactive things don't light up and aren't marked in any way, so you need to make sure you're lined up properly and do some test clicks to see if something is harvestable. With trees, holding the mouse button = faster chopping, though some types of trees need more chops to cut down than others. I watched a weird alien critter wander by and wondered what would happen if I poked it with my knife, but decided to finish getting the medical supplies before getting too adventurous.

Upon replicating a shovel I immediately tried to see how deep of a hole I could actually dig in this voxel world. I got a decent ways down before my shovel finally broke and I realized it's probably not wise to dig straight down leaving sheer walls and no way to get out. So I'm not sure how far down it's possible to go (or if there are underground features like caves), but it seems possible to dig out and entire underground complex if you wanted to spend the time (and having a better quality shovel might make it go quicker, unless quality only affects durability -- I'll have to test that theory). There is also no lighting change underground, which makes it trickier to discern the depth of a hole (or even where it is) if you're above ground looking for it. Small spaces also force you into first person perspective which can make orientation a bit difficult as well. I decided to come back later with better tools to make more progress with my digging experiment.

I noticed that the deeper you dig, the more you start getting units of graphite, sulfur, and other material besides just dirt. Unlike Minecraft it appears to be a % chance based on where you are digging rather than set nodes that you can see (though you can use a 'Handheld PC' to scan for various deposits near you).

Once I got back on track with my quest, I received more recipes for my replicator including one for a sword, so I crafted one and went looking for one of the critters I'd seen earlier to see how combat worked (basically click stuff til they die similar to Minecraft). They turned out to be cowards that didn't even fight back, and once I killed one I received some more food-based materials (meat and animal fat). I also found a new type of critter; a furry thing that was actually hostile on sight but who died just as easily.

The newbie quest eventually sent me north to look for more survivors, so I headed off, gathering samples of any new flora I found along the way. I'm not sure how plants regenerate in this game (or if they do at all), so clearcutting might not be the best idea. Once I found the second survivor camp, more quests opened up after talking to the folks hanging around. I also bought a headlamp so I can keep my hands free for tools in the dark, which seemed like a good investment -- you can use a Bed to speed up nighttime and regenerate your Stamina, but it's not instant and is a little boring to wait through just to avoid the dark. I also traded some of the Meat I had for a bow and arrows and some new armor. Now that I had some freedom to wander off the quest chain and into the wider world, I started looking into some of the other windows in the game, like the map (which shows coordinates and custom markings and allows fast-travel to key locations for a small fee so getting lost shouldn't be an issue).

From looking at the types of parts available to buy from the NPC vendor, vehicles and things like stationary defense turrets are also craftable, and you can apparently customize the appearance of weapons and other objects via the 'Creation System' window which at the moment confuses me more than anything else but has a lot of options to mess around with. From a cursory glance it looks like a more complex version of Spore's building/vehicle creation system where you can drag shapes into various configurations as well as choose paint/textures or even add custom decals onto objects. There is also an option to import other people's creations into your game as well. I was never good at anything other than Creature creation in Spore, however, so this sort of feature would be of limited appeal to myself, though I know some people would probably love it and could probably make some cool stuff with this editor (below is a pic of a player-created vehicle that I imported into my own game).

In part two, I'll be heading out into the wilds to see just how free-form the gameplay and building mechanics really are, which is my real interest.

Jan 20, 2014

[Brad 'The Vision' McQuaid Round Two: Rise of the Fallen]

   So it seems Brad McQuaid is done with that vanity-position he's had in EverQuest after that little Vanguard embarrassment of his and has moved on to a new Vision! I assume he figures it's been long enough now that most folks will have forgotten the messy details of his last epic failure as a boss and developer and will be willing to fund this new Kickstarter project out of idealistic nostalgia and the belief that putting their faith in one guy whose last successful game was made 15 years ago (which was hardly a one-man project anyway) will finally pay off this time around.

I'll be busting out the popcorn for this one.

Related Reading: Brad McQuaid: Cult of Personality or Friends in High Places?
                         Brad McQuaid Abandoned Sigil

Sep 5, 2013

[Consumption vs Naturalism in Animal Crossing]

via Gamasutra
"Animal Crossing deploys a procedural rhetoric about the repetition of mundane work as a consequence of contemporary material property ideals. When my (then) five-year-old began playing the game seriously, he quickly recognized the dilemma he faced. On the one hand, he wanted to spend the money he had earned from collecting fruit and bugs on new furniture, carpets, and shirts. On the other hand, he wanted to pay off his house so he could get a bigger one like mine. Then, once he did amass enough savings to pay off his mortgage, the local shopkeeper and real estate tycoon Tom Nook offered to expand his house. While it is possible to refrain from upgrading, Nook, an unassuming raccoon, continues to offer renovations as frequently as the player visits his store. My son began to realize the trap he was in: the more material possessions he took on, the more space he needed, and the more debt he had to take on to provide that space. And the additional space just fueled more material acquisitions, continuing the cycle."
  One thing that I have never seen anyone else notice or remark on about Animal Crossing, is the fact that all the housing items in the game are represented by a leaf icon whenever dropped  on the ground outside a building. The significance of that may be lost on most Westerners who aren't familiar with the Japanese mythology that surrounds the animal that Tom Nook is -- which is to say he's actually a tanuki, and not a raccoon.

  Tanuki are known for casting enchantments on things like leaves to make them look like treasure, and tricking stupid humans with it. When the tanuki magic wears off, the objects are revealed to actually be worthless. In other words, signs may be pointing to Tom Nook's entire business being more of a scam than Crazy Redd's black market. =P

  The fact that this tanuki trickery seems to be alluded to in Animal Crossing is very interesting, and even more so in the context of the above article, in my opinion.