May 26, 2011

[Goldfarming: Cruel and Unusual Punishment]

I was aware that the Chinese prison system was known for some shady practices, but this is something else: the new 'hard labor' in many Chinese prisons is virtual, not physical.
“Prison bosses made more money forcing inmates to play games than they do forcing people to do manual labour,” Liu told the Guardian. “There were 300 prisoners forced to play games. We worked 12-hour shifts in the camp. I heard them say they could earn 5,000-6,000rmb [£470-570] a day. We didn’t see any of the money. The computers were never turned off.”
It goes to show just how much money is tied up in RMT for games... and the more I learn about the infamous 'Chinese Gold Farmer' the less I resent them and the more I feel sorry for them. It seems like many are people just trying to pay their bills and put food on the table, if not outright forced to farm games for hours a day against their will. It's hard to demonize these people once you realize there are real human stories on the other side of the screen. In a way, people who pay for these goldfarming services are not simply cheating at a computer game, they may also be contributing to the exploitation of other human beings. If anything, it goes to prove that gamers should care about where their virtual goods and services are coming from.

May 7, 2011

[The Psychology of Griefing]

  On Massively's Soapbox column, Jef Reahard tries to analyze why people grief, and what indulging in a constant habit of asshatery in games reveal about their 'real' selves: there is no imaginary line between 'IRL' and 'the game' -- you are not magically a 'nice guy' in real life, because in 'real life' you are an asshole to random people on the internet for your own amusement. The very fact that doing that is your preferred means of online enjoyment makes your assholery completely real:
"I've met griefers who consider themselves well-adjusted folks in other parts of their lives, gamers who have fallen into the trap of separating game behavior from "real-world" behavior. The reality, though, is that if you're a bleep in an online game -- and it's a recurring thing -- you're a bleep, period. You're not a part-time bleep, or a bleep on the weekends, or a bleep after the wife and kids are safely bedded down. You're simply a bleep. Regardless of whether certain game mechanics enable your bleephead behavior, the choice to actively make another person unhappy is in fact a choice, and it's yours alone. You don't get to rationalize or compartmentalize it. It simply is what it is, and you are what you are."
  If your main pastime is being a sadistic jerk to people on the internet, how can you honestly believe you are not 'really' a sadistic jerk? Last I checked, 'real life' includes sitting in front of a computer an interacting with others. Interacting with people through games in this way IS what you're doing 'IRL'. There is no magical line that makes what you do to other people in a game less 'real' than anything else you happen to do in your life, and it defines who you are just as much as any face-to-face interaction.

May 3, 2011

[Spiral Knights Review]

  The first videogame I really fell in love with was Secret of Mana on the SNES. I remember going over to my friend's house and playing it with her for hours, and being sad that the sequel never game out in the states. It was pretty much the catalyst for my beginnings as a gamer. Since then, I've always had a special affection for Action RPGs. So when I heard about the recently-released FTP Action RPG MMO Spiral Knights, I decided to check it out.

  The simple story behind the game is that a spaceship filled with robot Knights has crashed on a weird planet that is made of giant rotating gears and embedded with the fragments of dozens of different worlds all patchworked together. At the Core of this epic machine is a mysterious power source that the Knights hope to be able to harness in order to repair their ship. However, no teams sent down to investigate have ever returned. So the refugees set up a more aggressive operation to equip and send fighting squads to the center of the planet and discover what's really down there.

Character creation screen -- pretty basic.
  Initial character creation is very simple. You pick two colors for the armor style of your choice, and that's it. Your 'Personal Color' is applied to your floating name as well as to accents on most armor that you'll equip. There are also appearance-only slots for armor sets, so there is some customizability in your appearance beyond just color scheme.

  The basics of the game are easy to pick up -- you start out in an instanced tutorial zone and 'newbie camp' where you can do some easy dungeon runs and figure things out at your own speed before heading to the real world hub of Haven. Once you reach the main world, you receive some basic objectives (there are no real 'quests' per se) and are let loose to explore the Clockworks' dungeons however you like. At this point it's best to experiment with different weapon styles and choose which one you'd like to focus on -- Swords, Guns, or Bombs, or a mixture of these. Fine tuning your gear and weapons to both your own playstyle and the dungeon levels you are planning to enter are the key to success (and fun)!

Crafting window, listing mats and costs required.

  Crafting simply consists of acquiring a recipe for a certain item, and having the right materials to create it (there is also a Crown and Energy cost). Whenever an item is crafted, there is a small chance that it can be a Unique Variant; an item with a special bonus ability or stat. UVs can be either useless or amazing, but the getting the right combination can mean lots of profit if you choose to sell rather than equip it yourself. Crafting materials are abundant drops in dungeons, with different types being linked to certain level themes (for example fire-themed materials are common in fire dungeons).

Fighting in a Beast-themed dungeon.

  The themes of different levels are an important factor in both your armor and weapon choices. Different monsters have varying strengths/weaknesses, so mixing and matching gear to counteract attacks while dealing damage effectively is a necessity. There are no limits to how many different types of armor and weapons you own, an you can switch gear around as needed every few levels, so it pays to have multiple choices at hand. SK purposely goes out of it's way to obfuscate the math behind stats and bonuses in a sort of 'anti-min/maxing' measure which nice, being that I've experienced the other end of the extreme in other games and don't really enjoy it anymore. In other words, you CAN optimize, but not doing so 100% won't totally ruin you, either.

Map of dungeon levels, with grouping options.

  Dungeons are modular, with different levels rotating every few minutes, changing the path of your descent. Aside from the few 'premade' dungeons, players can create new ones by depositing crystal pieces that they find into different hoppers, which then combine to form new levels over time. The actual layouts of the levels are reminiscent of classic Zelda, with keys, locked gates, switches, breakable objects, and simple puzzles interspersing all the hack-and-slash. Using the different terrain to your advantage is a good idea, since some areas can kill you quickly if you just rush in without thinking.
  Grouping (or soloing) is very simple. You can choose to join any existing group already in a dungeon you want to try out, or start your own group. You can lock groups to 'friends only' or even run solo, if you're confident enough. The deeper down you go, the better the rewards and the harder the challenge.

Combining ranged attacks on a cannon.

  The cash shop portion of the game consists of buying Crystal Energy refills, and there are several options available, starting at $2.50 and increasing from there depending how how big of an Energy junkie you are. There is also a Marketplace where players sell their Crystal Energy for  Crowns (the ingame currency), so paying with real cash is not really required. It's also possible to barter Energy with other players. In general, it's feasible to play the game casually without spending any money at all, though folks with a more hardcore approach will have to either spend a few dollars, or plan ahead to maximize efficiency of their Energy use. Otherwise, each player gets 100 free units of Energy every day -- with one unit recharging every 13 minutes.

Buying Energy with ingame money (and vice versa).

  I've heard this game described as having many elements in common with games like Legend of Zelda: Four Swords Adventure and Final Fantasy Crystal Chronicles. If you are a fan of ARPGs in general, or even just a casual MMO player, I recommend giving Spiral Knights a try.

Related Reading: Interview with SK's lead designer, Nick Popovich.